Book Review: Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo

Title: Ninth House
Author: Leigh Bardugo
Publisher: Flatiron Books
Publication date: October 8, 2019
Length: 458 pages
Genre: Fantasy/horror
Source: Purchased
Rating:

⭐⭐⭐⭐

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.

Ninth House was one of the biggest, buzziest releases of fall 2019. Author Leigh Bardugo is a wildly popular YA author, and with Ninth House, she ventures into adult fiction with a bang, getting hyped by the master, Stephen King, among other notables. 

Whoo boy, with praise like that, how can a mere human like me ever attempt to write a review?

Let’s give it a try.

In Ninth House, we’re plunged right into the action as Alex Stern hides out alone with a grave injury, contemplating what went wrong and what happens next. But what exactly happened, and what is this thing called Lethe that we see her thinking about? All will be revealed…

Alex arrives at Yale completely unprepared. She’s an impoverished high school dropout, a former drug user and dealer, and the sole survivor of a brutal mass murder. She’s offered a fresh start with a full scholarship to Yale, courtesy of Lethe House. 

Yale’s most famous exclusive society is Skull & Bones, but there are actually many more. In Ninth House, the Ancient Eight are bastions of the rich and famous and their up and coming offspring, and each house has its own connection to the arcane. The houses’ powers are what fuel their alumni’s fortunes and influence, and they each have distinctive rituals that keep their magic topped up and charged. Lethe, the ninth house, is not one of these. Rather, Lethe was founded as a watchdog — they’re the ones who monitor the rituals and make sure they keep within the bounds of the rules, preventing uncontrolled magic from escaping into the world, and keeping the Grays (ghosts) from crossing over from beyond the Veil.

While Lethe members don’t have magic themselves, they have access to a vast store of knowledge and materials that allows them to carry out the warding and protective functions that keep the houses’ rituals operating mostly within determined limits. Alex is different, though. She doesn’t need Lethe’s elixirs to see beyond — she’s been cursed all her life by her ability to see and interact with Grays. And now that she’s at Yale, she’s caught up in unprecedented Gray activity, as well as a murder on campus that could be unrelated… or it could be the key to a sinister plot that threatens the magical equilibrium.

Alex is a fabulous lead character. She’s edgy and wild, but has a past that torments her and secrets that she’s only now coming to terms with. She’s brave even when terrified, and despite being a loner, manages to make connections with her roommate and a fellow Lethe member in ways that support all the best elements of true female friendship. 

The magical systems are fascinating, but — a warning for the squeamish — do not read this book if you have a weak stomach! There are some pretty disgusting scenes, with copious amounts of blood, body parts, guts, and more. Ick — but it’s not gratuitous. The violence and horror completely serve the plot, and I normally don’t mind horror, but there were a few places that left me feeling like I needed to scrub my brain in order to remove some particularly unpleasant images.

I do have a few quibbles — chiefly, this book is so detail-heavy that unless you’re prepared to either take notes or read straight through (stock up on coffee!), there’s almost too much to keep track of. Each house has its powers, its players, its agenda, its rituals… and we really do need to be able to distinguish one from the other in order to follow Alex’s investigation and the conspiracy it reveals. None of this is a negative, but it does feel overwhelming to try to pick up the pieces of the plot again after taking a break to — I don’t know — maybe sleep or work or eat.

Do I recommend Ninth House? Absolutely! It’s a mesmerizing, engrossing read. But I do suggest picking a time to read it when you have time to dive in and really concentrate. 

Take A Peek Book Review: The Agony House by Cherie Priest

“Take a Peek” book reviews are short and (possibly) sweet, keeping the commentary brief and providing a little peek at what the book’s about and what I thought.

Synopsis:

(via Goodreads)

Denise Farber has just moved back to New Orleans with her mom and step-dad. They left in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and have finally returned, wagering the last of their family’s money on fixing up an old, rundown house and converting it to a bed and breakfast. Nothing seems to work around the place, which doesn’t seem too weird to Denise. The unexplained noises are a little more out of the ordinary, but again, nothing too unusual. But when floors collapse, deadly objects rain down, and she hears creepy voices, it’s clear to Denise that something more sinister lurks hidden here. Answers may lie in an old comic book Denise finds concealed in the attic: the lost, final project of a famous artist who disappeared in the 1950s. Denise isn’t budging from her new home, so she must unravel the mystery-on the pages and off-if she and her family are to survive…

My Thoughts:

Similarly to her work in the terrific I Am Princess X, in The Agony House author Cherie Priest tells a gripping story with comic book illustrations mixed in to tell a piece of the tale. When Denise discovers the hidden comic book in the creepy attic of her new house (which she bluntly refers to as a “craphole” at all times), the book seems to be a clue to the unexplainable events happening to the family as they try to make the old place livable once again.

Denise is a great main character — clearly very smart, devoted to her family, but unhappy with being dragged away from her friends back in Houston and forced to live in this awful house. As she settles in and gets to know some of the teens in her neighborhood, we get a picture of the devastation left by the Storm (as they refer to it), even after so many years. The book deals with issues around economic hardship, gentrification, and privilege, not in a preachy way, but by showing the struggles and resentments of the characters and the new understandings they need to reach in order to get along. The social lessons here feel organic and important to the story, and I appreciated seeing the characters come to terms with one another in all sorts of interesting ways.

I’d place The Agony House somewhere between middle grade and young adult fiction. The main characters are high school seniors, but the events and the narrative would be fine for younger readers, middle school or above, so long as they’re okay with ghosts and spookiness. I really enjoyed the comic book pages and how they relate to the main story, and thought it was all very cleverly put together. As an adult reader, I saw the plot resolution twist coming pretty early on, but that didn’t lessen the satisfaction of seeing it all work out, and I think it’ll be a great surprise for readers in the target audience.

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The details:

Title: The Agony House
Author: Cherie Priest
Illustrator: Tara O’Connor
Publisher: Arthur A. Levine Books
Publication date: September 25, 2018
Length: 272 pages
Genre: Young adult fiction
Source: Library

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Shelf Control #141: Things Half in Shadow by Alan Finn

Shelves final

Welcome to Shelf Control — an original feature created and hosted by Bookshelf Fantasies.

Shelf Control is a weekly celebration of the unread books on our shelves. Pick a book you own but haven’t read, write a post about it (suggestions: include what it’s about, why you want to read it, and when you got it), and link up! For more info on what Shelf Control is all about, check out my introductory post, here.

Want to join in? Shelf Control posts go up every Wednesday. See the guidelines at the bottom of the post, and jump on board!

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Title: Things Half in Shadow
Author: Alan Finn
Published: 2014
Length: 448 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

Postbellum America makes for a haunting backdrop in this historical and supernatural tale of moonlit cemeteries, masked balls, cunning mediums, and terrifying secrets waiting to be unearthed by an intrepid crime reporter.

The year is 1869, and the Civil War haunts the city of Philadelphia like a stubborn ghost. Mothers in black continue to mourn their lost sons. Photographs of the dead adorn dim sitting rooms. Maimed and broken men roam the streets. One of those men is Edward Clark, who is still tormented by what he saw during the war. Also constantly in his thoughts is another, more distant tragedy–the murder of his mother at the hands of his father, the famed magician Magellan Holmes…a crime that Edward witnessed when he was only ten.

Now a crime reporter for one of the city’s largest newspapers, Edward is asked to use his knowledge of illusions and visual trickery to expose the influx of mediums that descended on Philadelphia in the wake of the war. His first target is Mrs. Lucy Collins, a young widow who uses old-fashioned sleight of hand to prey on grieving families. Soon, Edward and Lucy become entwined in the murder of Lenora Grimes Pastor, the city’s most highly regarded–and by all accounts, legitimate–medium, who dies mid-seance. With their reputations and livelihoods at risk, Edward and Lucy set out to find the real killer, and in the process unearth a terrifying hive of secrets that reaches well beyond Mrs. Pastor.

Blending historical detail with flights of fancy, Things Half in Shadow is a riveting thriller where Medium and The Sixth Sensemeet The Alienist–and where nothing is quite as it seems…

How and when I got it:

I picked this up at the library book sale two years ago. I’d never heard of it before, but once I read the back of the book, I just had to have it.

Why I want to read it:

So many great elements — seances, spiritualism, historical fiction, murder mystery — this book sounds like something I’ll really sink my teeth into! As for why I haven’t read it yet, well, blame the book sale: Each year, I come home with bags of books… and some just never make it up from the bottom of the pile.

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Want to participate in Shelf Control? Here’s how:

  • Write a blog post about a book that you own that you haven’t read yet.
  • Add your link in the comments!
  • If you’d be so kind, I’d appreciate a link back from your own post.
  • Check out other posts, and…

Have fun!

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