Title: Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo
Publisher: Flatiron Books
Publication date: 8 October 2019
Genre: Adult | Fantasy | Dark academia
Page extent: 459 pages
Goodreads blurb: Galaxy “Alex” Stern is the most unlikely member of Yale’s freshman class. Raised in the Los Angeles hinterlands by a hippie mom, Alex dropped out of school early and into a world of shady drug dealer boyfriends, dead-end jobs, and much, much worse. By age twenty, in fact, she is the sole survivor of a horrific, unsolved multiple homicide. Some might say she’s thrown her life away. But at her hospital bed, Alex is offered a second chance: to attend one of the world’s most elite universities on a full ride. What’s the catch, and why her?
Still searching for answers to this herself, Alex arrives in New Haven tasked by her mysterious benefactors with monitoring the activities of Yale’s secret societies. These eight windowless “tombs” are well-known to be haunts of the future rich and powerful, from high-ranking politicos to Wall Street and Hollywood’s biggest players. But their occult activities are revealed to be more sinister and more extraordinary than any paranoid imagination might conceive.
Content warnings for gore, murder, self-harm, blood, child rape, sexual assault, suicide, drugs and drug use.
Let me preface this review by saying this was my very first Leigh Bardugo book and I cannot believe how long it has taken me to read one of her books? I’ve heard so much about this author and so I went in expecting something outstanding. I enjoyed Ninth House. It’s full of the delicious vibe associated with dark academia, has an edge of horror but also the cosiness of a murder mystery at times. However, I do think this book suffered due to the fact I read it immediately after finishing The Space Between Worlds.
Although a sci-fi, The Space Between Worlds also uses speculative fiction as a device to explore trauma, survival and privilege. And The Space Between Worlds does it so fucking well. Expertly so. And so whilst I see Bardugo’s attempts to tackle issues of class and privilege, I don’t think she managed quite as well as Johnson. I think on any other day, I probably wouldn’t have noticed quite as large a disparity, but purely due to the fact I had literally just read a book that did this particular thing so particularly well, Ninth House suffered in comparison to it.
Ninth House follows Alex Stern, a young woman who can see Grays (ghosts). After she awakens in hospital after a horrific crime, she is offered a position at Yale University, to join Lethe, one of Nine magical secret societies. Lethe are the shepherds, the guardians of magic who prevent the other societies from doing harm. It’s told in two POVs, Alex in the present, investigating a murder on campus, and Darlington, Alex’s tutor from Lethe, whose POV is in the past following Alex when she first joined Yale.
Ninth House is many things: dark academia, murder mystery, horror. I think Bardugo does a great job of combining these elements to make a transfixing atmosphere. I found the history of the secret societies absolutely fascinating, and some of the best parts of this novel fell in these more magical scenes, where Alex and Darlington were interacting with the secret societies in their rituals. From the blood magic to the prognostication, as gorey as they were at times, I was so enthralled by them. During some of the more mundane sections of the plot outside of the secret societies, and particularly nearer the end of the novel, I did feel it began to drag a little. Nearer the end it also felt a little repetitive in the constant cycle of: Alex almost dies, but she doesn’t. Then she almost dies again, but she doesn’t. How many times can someone crack their skull and still not die?!
I did love Alex as a character. I’m on a roll of books with impressively written, exceedingly morally grey, complex female characters, from Priory to The Space Between Worlds to this! I need more characters like this in my life. I loved Alex’s progression from the start of the novel where she’s hiding who she really is as she tries to fit into Yale, but over the course of the book the darkness and violence and anger in her is slowly revealed, please give me more of this vibe in SFF!!! Darlington was also an absolute gem and as I’m sure many others also feel, I wish we’d seen more of him! He felt like such a kind character, full of naive dreams about goodness and being a knight to protect others. I can’t wait for the second novel in this series to get more of him and more of his lightness playing off of Alex’s dark badassness.
Bardugo uses Yale and the secret societies as a way to comment on power and privilege and the way men have used these both to enforce their will on others, as well as to tackle the very current topic of university rape culture. I don’t think Bardugo does this badly, not at all. But I was missing that little extra spark of magic that The Space Between Worlds had. Ninth House tries to explore trauma, some of which is did well: I thought the way it explored how victims are often not believed through the use of perpetrators that no one can see was well done. This was explored both in flashbacks and in the present, when a police officer threatens to expose a video that shows Alex being attacked (by a ghost that no one can see) to discredit her. But I think outside of this example, Ninth House could have gone much further than just a few flashbacks exploring Alex’s past life. And as I said above, I think Ninth House did suffer a bit purely because I read these two books directly after each other and thus could really clearly see the differences in the handling of social commentary and trauma.
All in all, I’m glad I finally read my first Bardugo! Although I had a few issues, I did enjoy this book, the vibe was everything I love about dark academia and the secret societies and the ritualistic magic system were fascinating! I’ll definitely be picking up the sequel.