Punishingly intense academic pressure transforms a university student into a transcendent being in this harrowing fantasy novel by a married Ukrainian couple, the first in a trilogy.
Vacationing at the beach with her mom, 16-year-old Sasha Samokhina reacts with terror when a mysterious man in dark sunglasses starts following her around and staring at her. She’s right to be scared. He’s a supernatural recruiter using coercion—everything from threatening her family to trapping her in time loops—until she agrees to enroll in a provincial university nobody’s ever heard of. There, Sasha and her fellow students must memorize long passages of gibberish, solve koanlike math problems, and listen to deadening recordings of silence, all without a single error or misstep, or the people they love will die. Over and over the students are told they’re not ready to know the meaning of this work or what their future holds, but their studies change them, eventually uncoupling their existence from the physical plane. In Hersey’s sensitive translation, the Dyachenkos (The Scar, 2012, etc.) make vivid the tormenting preoccupations of adolescence and early adulthood: the social anxieties; the baffling dawn of sexuality; the new, uncontrolled powers that come with physical changes; and that simultaneous sense of one’s vital importance and one’s utter insignificance. It's no surprise that Sasha is at the age when serious mental illnesses such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder typically first make themselves apparent; the Dyachenkos turn the delusions of mental illness into dangerous magic.
Although it fits squarely in the popular school-for-magicians genre, this dark, ambitious, and intellectually strenuous novel will feel like a fresh revelation to fantasy readers glutted with Western wish-fulfillment narratives.