“This was why he had done it [. . .] the chance to show someone else the wonder, to watch them realise they had not been lied to, that the world they’d been promised as children was not something that had to be abandoned, that there really was something lurking in the wood, beneath the stairs, between the stars, that everything was full of mystery.”
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.
↠ Title: Ninth House
↠ Series Type: Duology
↠ Release: October 8th
↠ Genre: Paranormal
↠ Author: Leigh Bardugo
↠ Rating: 4.5 stars
Thank you to Gollancz for the review copy! (Which a blessed friend specifically won in a raffle at YALC.)
I feel like this review might take a while to write, because Ninth House is a layered monstrosity in the very best way. But before I even go into depth, I have to say this book is dark. REALLY DARK. Darker than anything Bardugo’s done before, probably darker than a few other college-set magical books you’ve read before. Please be aware of this!
Content warnings include:
- bodily mutilation (often for the purpose of rituals)
- gore (generally spread throughout the book, to do with murders & injuries)
- references to past drug use
- references to past sexual abuse
- child rape (specifically page 122 in the UK proof copy)
- magical dug akin to the date rape drug & filming/distribution of a sexual video without consent
- the consumption of human defecation
That’s all that I listed whilst reading, but there are likely ones that I missed. Either way, Ninth House is dark and I do feel that many should be aware before diving in because there is content that could be triggering to many readers.
I made an entire twitter thread whilst reading that includes TWs & page numbers: here
Onto the book itself. Personally, I comped it early on to THE SECRET HISTORY and JESSICA JONES, and if you’re a fan of any of those works you’ll enjoy this. NINTH HOUSE possesses the atmosphere of THE SECRET HISTORY, but lacks a bit of the snob (thanks to the gritty heroine, I would say). And Alex Stern, the heroine, has all the trod-down luck but fierce determination of Jessica Jones, but with drug problems instead of drink. Plus, they look a little alike – dark-haired and dark-eyed, with an edge to them that cuts if you get close.
Galaxy Stern is a shattered masterpiece of a heroine. My friend told me something really memorable once about mosaics and how they’re similar to people (they’re broken and put back together again and even more beautiful because of it) and that’s Alex. She’s tough and has been broken, but so caring. Her friendship with her roomate Mercy is so delightful, and what’s even better is the slow development of her relationship with Dawes, an assistant-type figure at the Ninth House (known in the book as Lethe, formed as a watchdog organisation to keep an eye on the magic of the other eight Houses of the Veil). Dawes and Alex aren’t similar, but instead of falling into the rivalry stereotype, they grow accustomed to each other and end up really good friends, And I am so so so delighted that this novel, which under the surface is about being a woman in a harsh world, has such good presentations of female friendships and there are no female “rivalries” or anything of the sort.
To me, the deepest strength of this book was the characters and the interpersonal relationships between the women. And next to that, the atmosphere. The plot is also very good, but 2/3rds of it are heavily development based and some may struggle and think it slow (remarkably, a lot like the structure of her other recent book, King of Scars). Book 2 will be were the action is executed, and you can tell. (Literally, it ended on a semi-cliffhanger and my face was the shocked pikachu meme.)
The book is split between time frames, mainly the past and then the present, and it is excellently intertwined. Occasionally such a narrative device will make a story jarring, but Bardugo excellently weaves it all together. That, and the fact that the chapters are marked with seasons (Fall, Winter, Last Spring, etc) is really beautiful.
Bardugo’s writing peaks in this novel too. She’s always had beautiful prose, but over the years it has been levelling up (read the opening chapter of King of Scars and the sense of atmosphere is incredible) and now it is goddess-like. The excellent thing is that it isn’t overdone, either. It feels so effortless, so natural, in contrast to some writers whose purple prose really sticks out and makes you realise how pretty it is (i.e. Laini Taylor). I could pull a hundred tabbed metaphors and similes from this novel alone. It really is beautiful and you can see that from the very first paragraph with its sullen afternoons, sweating lawns and meringues of frost.
Also, the deuteragonist Darlington (Daniel Arlington) is a sweet, mysterious bean. He initially seems like a foil to Alex – he’s polite, has had a wealthy upbrining, is level-headed and has had everything where Alex has not. But they’re more similar than first appears, though Darlington is still wrapped in mysteries to be revealed. Also, he owns a crumbling country house called Black Elm and how gothic is that?
A facet of Ninth House some readers are bound to enjoy is the intersection between reality and magic. If you’ve been to New Haven or Yale, the book introduces magic to familiar parks and streets. It also introduces murder and a dish of darkness too. And for the mythology and classics nerds, its delightful. It’s got Egyptian and Greek influences and references to Virgil and Dante. Bardugo creates deep worlds for these mythical secret societies where not much is known, and I can’t wait for the second book.
TL;DR: An incredible entry into adult fantasy and a fabulous addition to her repertoire, Bardugo goes deep and dark with Ninth House.