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.