BOOK REVIEW: NINTH HOUSE BY LEIGH BARDUGO

Summary:

  • published by:Gollancz
  • genres: fantasy, dark academia, adult
  • content warnings: rape of a child, sexual assault under influence of a magical drug, drowning, heavy violence, gore, drug addiction, overdosing, death, suicide, blackmail, self-harm, and forced consumption of human waste.
  • Read if you liked: The Secret History, If We Were Villains, Sawkill Girls

Synopsis:

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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.

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Ninth House is a book I think the entire community has been looking forward to. I had really high expectations for this. I have enjoyed all of Leigh Bardugo’s books, but I was interested to see how I would enjoy her writing in an adult context. I really love adult fantasy and dark academia so I thought this would be a hit, but I was still a little apprehensive.

Ninth House is almost exactly what I expected from Leigh Bardugo. Compelling and complex main characters. A long drawn out mystery with heaps of plot twists. Dark themes, but also themes around speaking out, finding your voice and female empowerment.

That is what made it good – but it’s also what made it only a four-star. As much as I enjoyed this, it didn’t have that extra ba-boom spark that I really look for in a Leigh Bardugo book. In all fairness, though, my expectations were high. I felt like I was in a dream reading Crooked Kingdom when that came out and I’ve been chasing that high ever since. It’s hard for things to measure up.

“That was what magic did. It revealed the heart of who you’d been before life took away your belief in the possible. It gave back the world all lonely children longed for.”

Ninth House is led by Galaxy ‘Alex’ Stern, a new freshman to Yale who’s inducted into Lethe house under mysterious circumstances we learn about later. Lethe is basically a group of people who watch over the secret societies that, literally, practice dark magic. Alex is mentored by Daniel Arlington, referred to as ‘Darlington’, who is a perfect man I adore – and who also has gone missing at the start of the book.

The narrative flips between two timelines. The winter, following Alex after the disappearance of Darlington as she investigates the murder of a student called Tara. And then the previous spring, following the events leading up to Alex getting admitted into Yale and her tutelage under Darlington.

“Magic has nearly killed him, but in the end it had saved him. Just like in the stories”

One thing that immediately drew me into this world was the dark atmosphere, the setting and the worldbuilding. The start is definitely a little slow, but I really liked the way the narrative started to explore the different secret societies and they’re magic. We’re introduced to these houses alongside Alex, via Darlington, and I loved this setup. Alex and Darlington’s relationship and the spooky build-up to the action was excellent. I really love dark academia, so giving me that with a literal dark magic twist was right up my alley. I enjoyed the dark underbelly feel of this, that idea that there is magic lurking just under the surface and some people never see it.

Alex, we quickly learn, can see ghosts – and this is one of the core aspects of her characterisation. Alex is a tough-nut, she’s been through a lot and she’s come out the other end a little uncertain and with a lot to work on. But I really liked her cynical, tough narration and interior monologue that drove the action forward. She’s tough and loyal and I loved that her friendship with the girls she lives with, with her mother and her relationship with Darlington were so important. I noticed often throughout this book how female friendship and connections, shown most through Alex’s friendships, was so important. 

“And maybe he wanted her to be the kind of girl who dressed as Queen Mab, who loved words and had stars in her blood.”

I also liked the theme of empowerment and moving on from abuse that was prominent in this book. It reminded me strongly of themes Bardugo has explored before, but in a fresh way. Themes around giving the voice back to the abused and disempowered are ones I think I’ll always enjoy. I like how Bardugo explored this in front of the backdrop of  Yale University. Privilege permeates spaces like universities and academia and Ninth House unravels the way these spaces treat groups as expendable, especially when money and influence are involved. I thought Bardugo did well at drawing out these ideas and exploring them through a character like Alex really helped crystallise these concepts.

But more then anything, this book is a mystery. We’re following Alex as she tries to solve both Tara’s murder and Darlington’s disappearance. I think Leigh Bardugo didn’t quite nail some of the mystery elements here. The mystery, for me, took a little bit too long to develop and become serious. There didn’t feel like there were really high stakes until too late into the book. The reveal was also a bit disappointing for me, and I thought Bardugo could have done more to implant the threads and then draw them together at the end more firmly. This is something she has done incredibly well in the previous series, but here I didn’t feel like she planted the seeds at the beginning of the book, so the payoff wasn’t as satisfying. With that said, I always found this book easy to pick up and compelling. I could always feel the momentum and the drive behind the plot and characters that made me keep picking this book up.

“What do you want?” Belbalm had asked her. Safety, comfort, to feel unafraid. I want to live to grow old, Alex thought as she pulled the curtains closed. I want to sit on my porch and drink foul-smelling tea and yell at passersby. I want to survive this world that keeps trying to destroy me.”

Ninth House was Bardugo’s first toe-dip into the adult fantasy world and sometimes in this book it showed. The writing and mystery weren’t as expertly craft as in some of her previous works. With that said, she transported me to a dark setting with a seedy magic underbelly I loved. The focus on secret societies and dark magic was right up my alley. Alex was a compelling main character to follow with a lot of depth to explore and I thought she was an excellent vehicle for exploring the themes in this book. The next book doesn’t come out until 2021 which is just too far away, but I’ll definitely be picking it up when it does come out.

until next time

sign off


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