Note: There are spoilers in this review.
Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo is the first book of the Alex Stern series. The protagonist, Galaxy “Alex” Stern—so named by a hippie mom—gets recruited by one of Yale University’s secret societies because of her mysterious ability. Lethe, Yale’s ninth secret society, is tasked to oversee the eight other houses as they practice magical rituals and also to safeguard these rituals from Grays (ghosts) that are drawn to these ceremonies.
Alex, due in large part to her abilities, experienced a traumatic childhood and figures in a horrific multiple homicide case which slowly unravels throughout the novel. She is squarely an outsider in the rarefied, privileged community of an Ivy League university, and that by itself provides an interesting tension between characters.
At the start of the novel, readers are introduced to the ritual of the infamous Skull and Bones secret society. Since this is fiction, and a fantasy book at that, Bardugo immerses us into an imagined ceremony filled with blood and gore. It’s an effective device for illustrating the divide between the haves and have-nots.
Unfortunately, the flip-flopping tone of the novel diminishes the gravitas of the story. It’s hard to take anything seriously when the horrific events exist side by side with extensive descriptions of outfits and raves and a troubled protagonist who seems to have a case of multiple personalities. Is it dark comedy? Is it satire? I don’t know, but I did find myself laughing out loud because of the absurdity of it all.
As a reader, the quick changes in temperament and mood, particularly the protagonist’s snarky yet ill-timed comebacks, made it hard for me to fully root for any of the characters. Something about the use of humor and sarcasm for levity in the face of tragedy somehow clashes with modern sensibilities. Tonally, it seems outdated.
The structure was also confusing in parts. It has three main timelines and two perspectives: Early Spring (Present; Alex’s perspective), Last Fall (Past, entering Yale; Darlington’s perspective), Winter (Events from a few months ago; Alex’s perspective). There’s also Last Summer about Alex’s troubled past pre-Yale, but then some Winter chapters also contain flashbacks of events from Last Fall.
The difference in perspective likely makes this reasonable, although to me some flashbacks don’t flow that well because they are interspersed with other pressing events. I can imagine this making sense in a screenplay, as a description of someone’s reveries, but in novel form, it can be a bit jarring.
A lot of the parts I liked about Ninth House has to do with the subversion of the ghost mythology, such as the idea that there are no ghosts in cemeteries because they don’t like being reminded of death—instead, Grays seek out places and situations pulsating with life (i.e. blood, sweat, and tears—even anxiety-ridden libraries)—or the pivotal revelation of the true nature of Alex’s abilities.
Although some of the magick remains vague, the good thing about a series is that the author can expound on the world and the magic system in the succeeding installments.
This is the first Leigh Bardugo book I’ve read, although I did watch Shadow and Bone on Netflix. Overall, I think it’s a good entry to her writing, especially if you’re looking for something grittier.
In writing to create cool characters and a cool novel, the author did manage to write a critique about class and privilege which are well worth exploring. I don’t know if I’m gonna read the rest of this series, but I do look forward to reading more of Bardugo’s work.