The mesmerising adult debut from Leigh Bardugo. A tale of power, privilege, dark magic and murder set among the Ivy League elite. Alex Stern is the most unlikely member of Yale’s freshman class. A dropout and the sole survivor of a horrific, unsolved crime – the last thing she wants is to cause trouble. Not when Yale was supposed to be her fresh start. But a free ride to one of the world’s most prestigious universities was bound to come with a catch.
Alex has been tasked with monitoring the mysterious activities of Yale’s secret societies – societies that have yielded some of the most famous and influential people in the world. Now there’s a dead girl on campus and Alex seems to be the only person who won’t accept the neat answer the police and campus administration have come up with for her murder.
Because Alex knows the secret societies are far more sinister and extraordinary than anyone ever imagined.
They tamper with forbidden magic. They raise the dead. And, sometimes, they prey on the living . . .
Going in, let’s be clear – this isn’t a young adult novel, it’s Leigh Bardugo’s adult debut; it’s extremely confronting at points with references to and on-page depiction of sexual assault, child rape and statutory rape as well as mutilation and general gore. If you feel this may be a potential trigger, please search for more specific posts which outline exactly content is included so you can decide whether this is suitable to read.
I’m really glad that I knew of the trigger warnings going around on social media so that I wasn’t blindsided going into this. I had some qualms about the focus on sexual trauma, but Leigh Bardugo’s tweet discussing how the protagonist’s experiences in Ninth House were drawn from her personal life made me feel that it would be handled sensitively. I’m really glad that I read this book after all because it’s certainly NOT misery porn and none of the scenes depicted are at all gratuitous or feel like they’re included for shock value (although I can only speak for how I perceive it myself).
Now that’s out of the way! How was the book? In a word: AMAZING. 😍
The author’s prose is sheer magic, I re-read the opening paragraph three times just to soak in the ambience. I came into this apprehensive, waiting for heartbreak and bloodshed, and while the opening line promised that was to come (‘By the time Alex managed to get the blood out of her good wool coat, it was too warm to wear it‘), what I didn’t expect was to swoon over the pure elegance in the author’s turn of phrase.
Also unexpected was the deliciously complex anti-heroine who is the brittle black heart of this story! Alex Stern sees dead people, and it has ruined her life. She turned to drugs as a harmful coping mechanism and fell into an abusive relationship at the tender age of 15. All she’s known is struggle and hardship, which leads her to adopt an abrasive attitude and prioritize survival at all costs, regardless of nice soft concepts like morality or fairness.
I let you die. To save myself, I let you die.
That is the danger in keeping company with survivors.
And yet as rabidly vicious as she can be, always on the attack with men in her vicinity, Alex has a soft spot for the women in her life – it would’ve been easy and cliche to have Alex keep everyone at arm’s length, but instead the author builds up multiple interesting female friendships. First with Hellie, who was introduced by Alex’s druggie boyfriend as a romantic rival – instead Alex adores her and they become fast friends, leaning on each other to make it through the harsh reality of their daily life; later at Yale, her roommate Mercy takes fish-out-of-water Alex under her wing, helping her with essays and adjusting to life on campus, and Alex reciprocates with affection and fierce loyalty. She may be broken, but she still forges meaningful bonds with other characters; she may not have much time for rules and principles, but Alex won’t stand to see women being mistreated…unless of course she needs to threaten violence in order to get information or cooperation from someone impeding her investigation, that’s totally different! 😎 (er, I did mention she’s an anti-heroine, right?)
Aside from her unenviable ghost whisperer skills, Alex also has the hilarious ability to cut to to the heart of the occult traditions using crude metaphors such as describing a twenty-two carat gold crucible as a ‘magical mixing bowl’ and offending learned scholars in her vicinity. Because while the themes may be dark and oppressive, Alex is a constant source of snarky wit and kept me snickering throughout the book. Her inner voice was so much fun to read, for instance:
“Alex!” he exclaimed, like she was a much anticipated guest at a party.
Colin’s enthusiasm always seemed genuine, but sometimes its sheer wattage made her want to do something abruptly violent like put a pencil through his palm.
It’s concerning how much I relate to Alex sometimes. 😆
The plotline of Ninth House is basically like blindly working on a jigsaw puzzle where you’re piecing together separate sections in isolation and finding out how to fit them together, you’re starting to get an idea of the overall picture…only then the author throws a curveball and you realize this is actually a 3-D puzzle and you need to adjust your worldview! The synopsis references the murder of a young woman, Tara Hutchins, but there’s also the matter of the unsolved mass murder that Alex alone survived plus her mentor Darlington’s disappearance, both of which are teased from the start. Then when Alex begins looking into Tara’s death, it only spawns more questions and leads her to further mysteries that she needs to untangle.
I love the depiction of the secret societies and how each House of the Veil has its own occult specialty with decades of history and tradition behind it. The book is bursting with creativity shown through a ton of throwaway little details included to make the world feel more lived in with references to various rituals and magical artifacts (like a Revolution Clock that counts down to armed revolt), trivia about noted society alumni (Jodie Foster!), political conflicts involving the Houses and their influence on the outside world (the assassination of Winston Churchill). 😳 In fact, there’s so much that is limited to casual asides or only brief scenes at most that I really wish that Alex’s first semester at Yale had formed its own complete plot in book 1 so we could fully appreciate the extensive world-building as it deserves. I could do with a whole chapter introducing her to Il Bastone, Lethe’s headquarters, a magical house that expresses its feelings through creaky signs and worried rattles, and comes complete with a magical library!
Il Bastone made a worried rattle as she entered, the chandeliers tinkling. To anyone else it probably would have felt like a truck rolling by, but Alex could feel the house’s concern and it put a lump in her throat. Maybe it just disapproved of so much blood and trauma crossing its threshold, but Alex wanted to believe that the house did not like the suffering of one of its own.
Ninth House tackles some heavy themes as it turns the spotlight on how those in power abuse their privilege and rely on their wealthy backgrounds to avoid culpability for their wrongdoings as well as the effects on those whom they have wronged. For all the lofty talk of secret societies and ancient traditions, the reality is that these are predominantly arrogant rowdy young men entrusted with power beyond reason and no limitations set on them. It’s an unfortunate reality that there will be a few who use their gifts to take advantage of others, as we see with the frat boys who magically date-rape vulnerable girls at parties. Enough of this awful tragedy happens in the real world that normally I avoid reading books involving the subject matter since I want a happier escape from reality, but with a badass like Alex Stern as the main character, let me just say that this is a damn fine cathartic read as we see her brand of justice meted out.
WTF IS WRONG WITH YOU.
Alex kept her reply simple: xoxo
You had no right. I trusted you.
We all make mistakes.
As much as I adore this book, I did find it a little confusing in the beginning as the narrative is split between a few different timelines divided into the seasons; the prologue starts in ‘Early Spring’, with the bulk of the following chapters taking place in ‘Winter’ alternating with ‘Last Fall’ and even a foray into ‘Last Summer’ to fill in some missing pieces before the story catches up to the present day and moves forward. I became used to it fairly quickly, and it shouldn’t impede anyone’s enjoyment as long as they’re paying attention!
What remained a blur to me, however, was what exactly each of the Houses did and who formed their leadership – with eight Houses of the Veil and only limited page space allotted to developing them, I struggled to keep track of all the information we were given and the key players in charge. That was a bit of a problem when the investigation heated up and Alex was weighing up the various suspects and trying to guess at their motives; I could’ve really used a conspiracy wall dartboard with all the red strings connecting between the clues and societies as a handy visual aid!
With captivating writing, multiple engrossing mysteries and a compelling amoral heroine, Ninth House is an addictive read that will keep you glued to the page. Dark themes mean that it’s not suited for all readers, but for those who are willing to venture into this world, it’s highly enjoyable and very rewarding in a macabre fashion sure to have you begging for more!
Personal Rating: 4 out of 5 kitties recommend this book.
Disclaimer: Physical copy provided by publisher free for an unbiased review. All thoughts and opinions are my own.