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Ninth House


Ninth House

Following a wildly successful career as a young adult author, reigning queen of the Grishaverse Leigh Bardugo makes her first (and long-awaited) foray into adult literature. Grim, deeply magical and unflinchingly violent, NINTH HOUSE is a perfect spooky read for grown-up Harry Potter fans who are aching for more.

It is always a shock when someone gains entry into an Ivy League institution, regardless of the hours of prep and determination it took to get there. But for Galaxy “Alex” Stern, the imposter syndrome is as real as it gets: she has no diploma, no GED and is a bit too familiar with the popular street drug fentanyl. Oh, and she was recently the sole survivor of a grisly multiple homicide. Not exactly Yale material, but Alex has a very special skill on her resume: she can see ghosts (Greys) without drinking a potent and dangerous elixir, and there is a super-secret society at the storied university that needs her. The catch? She must delve into a world very close to the Veil, populated by obscene violence, corrupt men with too much power, and her own worry that she might be crazy.

"Grim, deeply magical and unflinchingly violent, NINTH HOUSE is a perfect spooky read for grown-up Harry Potter fans who are aching for more."

Bardugo kicks off NINTH HOUSE with the bewitching idea that Yale’s secret societies are no longer just hazing one another and granting career-driven favors, but, rather, using dark magic to predict the stock market, see the future, and assist their powerful and well-known members in their own business endeavors. As a freshman granted a full ride, it is Alex’s job to join Lethe House, one of the nine campus societies that polices the others, make sure their forays into black magic go unnoticed, keep the Greys away and, of course, clean up the bodies...wait.

Even without her paranormal skill set, Alex is an immediately captivating character: born to a hippie mom, she shares almost nothing in common with her privileged, wealthy classmates and reveals her backstory slowly, cautiously, with the air of a person who has seen too much. Her mentor at Yale, Darlington, does what he can to tame his charge, but even he can see that Alex is not like any member of Lethe House before her. When Darlington disappears at the end of Alex’s first semester, she must brave the world of magic, murder and corruption alone --- and decide if she can stomach Lethe Houses’s darker proclivities in exchange for a promised future, or if she should return to the depths of poverty, trauma and hopelessness. When the body of one of New Haven’s poorest citizens is discovered, Alex is forced to confront this decision head-on, battling her own sense of self-preservation and the depths of her magic.

It goes without saying that NINTH HOUSE is a wickedly magical and fantastical story full of mystery and world-building, but in Bardugo’s skilled hands, it is so much more. Not once does she shy away from exposing the gap between Alex and her privileged peers, and in doing so, she forces her readers to confront their own privileges as well. For years, Yale’s magic practitioners have preyed upon the poor, forgotten and mentally ill --- but with Alex around, they can no longer act like their victims (sacrifices?) have no value outside of their magical offerings. Bardugo brilliantly unpacks the draw of corruption and the toxicity of wealth with a careful hand --- all without distracting from the plain fun spookiness of Alex’s world. Gentrification, misogyny and trauma are all placed under Bardugo’s magnifying glass, and the result is a poignant, thought-provoking combination of fantasy and real life that will appeal to readers of all kinds.

Bardugo is already well-known for her powerful world-building, and though NINTH HOUSE is set in a world familiar to ours (New Haven!), she still manages to imbue her setting with endless magic and sparkle. New Haven is a character in and of itself, and even as Alex endures such vicious acts as misogyny and trauma, so does New Haven endure gentrification and the loss of its citizens. The Yale campus, meanwhile, is equal parts inviting and threatening --- a Tim Burton-ified Hogwarts with endless potential for both power and devastation.

In case I have not made this clear, NINTH HOUSE is absolutely not for the faint of heart; this tome sits solidly in the world of the grimdark, and Bardugo depicts several scenes of violence, sexual assault and more --- but never gratuitously or recklessly. Every decision of hers serves the plot and her protagonist, though it is definitely a novel that requires a few, if not several, trigger warnings.

Combining a clever and steadfast protagonist with witchcraft and ghosts, and layering them into a world that is shockingly and brutally familiar to our own, NINTH HOUSE is a mystery-lover’s fantasy woven into a world full of crimes and harsh truths. I finished the book breathlessly with wide eyes and a level of focus that I usually only reserve for picking up broken glass --- even when it is difficult to read, it is impossible to pry your eyes from it. Whether you’ve read Bardugo’s YA books or not, her first adult novel is well worth your time and signifies a whole new level to her already ultra-talented mind. Ready or not, here comes Alex Stern. Is book two here yet?

Reviewed by Rebecca Munro on October 11, 2019

Ninth House
by Leigh Bardugo