If you haven’t heard of or read anything by Leigh Bardugo, I suggest that you change that immediately. I should be writing this post as an “Ode to… Leigh Bardugo” but instead this is a special edition to one particular reader who bought this book a while ago, but now needs a push to dive in. So let me just say, if you haven’t read Bardugo’s YA Shadow and Bone series or her Six of Crows duology, I really don’t know what you’re waiting for. Especially given that Netflix’s adaptation comes out in less than 2 months! (Personally, I’m counting down the days. If you haven’t seen the trailer, click here and tell me that this doesn’t look amazing!)
Now, you might be saying, “Cheryl. Seriously. I can’t imagine picking up a fantasy book. Why on Earth would I do that? Isn’t fantasy about wizards or dragons or something? I definitely don’t dig that.” Let me start answering that by answering, “Would I ever steer you wrong?” While Bardugo’s YA novels are more serious fantasy, Ninth House is actually a murder mystery and a ghost story with supernatural elements set in today’s world on the campus of Yale University. Even people who don’t like or are skeptical of fantasy should be willing to dip their toe into this one. And who knows, this might turn you from a fantasy skeptic into a fantasy lover.
Ninth House is Bardugo’s first foray into adult literature. There’s nothing YA about this book. Trigger warnings include: sexual assault, drug abuse, occult rituals, and probably more I just can’t think of. This book is dark and definitely not for the light-hearted.
The beginning of the book throws you right into the underworld of the Secret Societies at Yale. While these societies are real, in Bardugo’s world they do a little bit more than drink and party. They perform dark rituals to ensure their long-term success. Case in point, in the first chapter, readers are thrown into the occult world when they (and Alex) witness the Skull and Bones society forecasting stock tips using magic and a person’s entrails (aka intestines… while attached to a live person). Another Society – Manuscript – has a penchant for dealing in drugs that loosen inhibitions that power creativity and imagination (among other things). Each Society has its own brand of magic and they practice it with abandon.
Alex Stern, our heroine, doesn’t belong at Yale. She has none of the regular credentials needed to obtain admittance to one of the United States’ most elite universities – good grades, SAT scores, etc. On top of that, she is shrouded in mystery as the lone survivor of a mysterious massacre that killed a bunch of drug dealers which continues to haunt her even as she tries to put her trauma behind her. But, she does have a particular talent needed to keep these Secret Societies in check. And Yale is willing to do anything to acquire her.
In exchange for a full scholarship, Alex is made a member of Lethe House, an organization designed to keep the Secret Societies in check – make sure they don’t go too far, and police those who do. Her particular talent: being able to see ghosts (called Grays) without the aid of drugs. Lethe House is made up of three people: Virgil, Dante, and Oculus. Alex is the newbie – the Dante. She’s being trained by a more experienced upperclassman – the Virgil – Daniel Arlington, fondly referred to as Darlington. The third member – their Oculus – is their research assistant and all-around mother hen, Pamela Dawes. Together they work hard to ensure that Yale doesn’t turn into a magic-infested free-for-all.
Everything changes on one fateful night. Darlington has vanished and Alex is on her own. She’s been doing the best she can on her own but one night policing the Skull and Bones stock ritual, she notices something odd with the Grays haunting the ritual. Later that evening, the body of a dead girl is found elsewhere in town. Alex thinks there is a connection between the Societies and the murder and she begins an investigation that will take her further than she ever intended to go for answers. She will go to the shores of Hell itself to find answers. She will make a deal with a ghost for answers. She will face her own demons and the demons of others. And she will get answers. But that’s only the beginning.
Part of the delight of the book is that it keeps you guessing. I love books that jump back and forth in time. It makes you wonder how what happened then influences what’s happening now. You get to know both Alex – who narrates the now chapters – “Winter” and “Spring” – and Darlington – who narrates the ‘Last Fall” chapters. It makes you desperate to know what happened to Darlington then that is influencing Alex’s now.
One of the drawbacks of the book is that the first half is quite dense and challenging to get through. Bardugo has the difficult task – to build this world of Alex, Darlington, and the demonic Yale societies – and that takes probably longer than it should. You may begin wondering, why do I care about any of this, but as any good storyteller, an author must build a world before it can be irrevocably changed. To those who get through it, you are rewarded on the other side. And trust me when I say nothing will be the same.
It’s clear from the get-go that Alex is keeping secrets. Not only the secret of what happened to Darlington but the secrets of her past. As you delve deeper, it becomes clear that everyone is keeping secrets. And when those secrets start getting revealed… well, you’re in for a real treat of intrigue after intrigue, betrayal after betrayal in an insane web of conspiracy that you can’t even predict (if you’re like me) that continues until the Very. Last. Page.
This was one of the best books in 2019 and reading it again only made me reconfirm my earlier opinions. And, once again, made me completely miserable knowing that I’ll have to wait for the sequel.
Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo, published 2019