by Rachel R.
I am truly honoured to be one of the first people who gets to read the Advance Copy of Assassin of Reality in English after waiting several years for there to be a translation. As such I’ll try to restrain my actual reaction, which was an elated squeal so high-pitched that only dogs could hear it.
A few years ago, I read Vita Nostra, and it absolutely blew my mind. It’s a shimmering gem of a novel—inventive, atmospheric, transcendent. It gave me nightmares. I had to make everyone I knew read it. It’s also a very complete book, and without spoiling the ending, I couldn’t imagine how Sasha’s story could continue from its brainmelting conclusion.
But, continue it does, in a novel that is every bit worth the wait. Fifteen years after the events of Vita Nostra, a different Sasha, one who made different choices, dies in a car accident. The night before, she catches a vision of our Sasha, whose third-year exam at the Institute of Special Technologies did not exactly go as planned. “Our” Sasha is forced by her sinister mentor Farit to return to the Institute, where she must correct her mistakes before she is allowed to graduate. The stakes, this time, are not just the lives of her loved ones, but the very nature of reality itself.
I fell in love with the Sasha of Vita Nostra, and her persistence and ambition in the face of her own terror and the perplexing, overwhelming absurdity of the Institute. Assassin of Reality gives us an older, wearier Sasha, one who pushes back against the Institute’s structures and fights for her life, her humanity, and her agency, even if that fight comes at a tremendous personal cost. I also loved the deeper glimpses we get into the lives of those around her, especially Lisa, who is just a fantastic character. It’s a complex, philosophical, challenging book, but it’s grounded in the raw fallibility of the people (and metaphysical constructs) at its heart. Sasha’s fragile and fraught relationships with her classmates, her burgeoning love for Yaroslav, a pilot with secrets of his own, even her growing friendship with Yaroslav’s aging father are rendered with sympathy but never romanticization. The Institute, too, is a character in its own right, claustrophobic and uncanny.
I couldn’t rave about this book without also mentioning how wonderful the translation is. I can’t imagine how challenging it must have been to translate a book in which language plays such a central role. Without giving away too much of the story, language is a major plot point, there’s wordplay, and Russian and English are not exactly similar languages. And yet it doesn’t feel like a book in translation—the prose absolutely sings off the page.
Assassin of Reality is a worthy successor to what’s probably my favourite fantasy novel of all time. Its sole flaw is that I know there is a third book and I still speak neither Russian or Ukrainian. I would give it more stars if I could, stars that only exist on planes of reality that we mortals have yet to explore.
If you need this book as much as I did, pre-order your copy in e-book and hardcover.