Grossman, Gaiman, and Gogol: Harper Voyager Acquires English Translation of Russian Fantasy Vita Nostra

The words vita nostra, or “our life,” come from an old Latin student anthem “Gaudeamus”: “Vita nostra brevis est, Brevi finietur” or “Our life is brief, It will shortly end…”

In Sergey Dyachenko and Marina Shyrshova-Dyachenko’s fantasy Vita Nostra, described as “The Magicians but set in a rural Russian technical college,” Alexandra (Sasha) Samokhina is forced into a seemingly inconceivable situation: Against her will, she must enter the Institute of Special Technologies. A slightest misstep or failure at school—and the students’ loved ones pay a price. Governed by fear and coercion, Sasha will learn the meaning of the phrase “In the beginning was the word…”

The recipient of eight literary prizes and much critical acclaim in Russia, Vita Nostra has been translated into several languages. Harper Voyager has acquired Julia Hersey’s English translation of the novel, which was named the best novel of the twenty-first century in the sci-fi/fantasy genre at Eurocon-2008. The Magicians author Lev Grossman has described it as “a book that has the potential to become a modern classic of its genre.”

According to the publisher, Vita Nostra is a thrilling journey into the deepest mysteries of existence, a dizzying adventure, an opening into a world that no one has ever described, a world that frightens and attracts readers. The novel combines seemingly incongruous aspects—spectacular adventures and philosophical depth, incredible transformations and psychological accuracy, complexity of ethical issues and mundane details of urban life.

Sergey Marina Dyachenko

Sergey Dyachenko and Marina Shyrshova-Dyachenko

This was a key acquisition for Harper Voyager Executive Editor David Pomerico, who has been building a steadily more diverse literary list for the imprint. “As editors, we’re rarely in a position where an agent is so confident a project is right for you that they say, ‘I haven’t gone out with this to anyone else—I think you’re just the perfect person for this project,'” he said. “So when you hear that—and after you deflate your ego just a touch—you are excited to dive right in. When the Dyachenkos’ Vita Nostra came to me, I was already intrigued by the premise: basically The Magicians, but set in a rural Russian technical college. But when I finally got into the narrative, it was almost as if I was hypnotized, especially when Sergey and Marina’s story were combined with Julia’s incredible translation. There were aspects of Grossman’s novels, but also a bit of Gaiman… and a bit of Gogol. The effect was lyrical and immediate, and I had to know not only what kind of magic they were learning, but how it would change Sasha. And maybe that’s ultimately what drew me in: that the fantasy was couched in something incredibly real, and yet told in a way I’d never quite experienced. I’m hoping that’s what others feel when they read it, too.”

Julia Hersey translator Vita Nostra

Julia Hersey

Night Watch director Timur Bekmambetov has optioned Vita Nostra, which he describes as “a fantasy so authentic that, having turned its last page, I thought that Marina and Sergey Dyachenko somehow know everything that happened to me during the first year of my adult life. I am so grateful to them for giving me another chance to relive those experiences; with all the means of cinematography at my disposal, I will do my best to convey the magic of those times.”

Vita Nostra will be available in hardcover November 2018 from Harper Voyager.

Top image: Cover illustration by Elena Godnik for Vita Nostra, Eksmo Publishing House edition.

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