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. 

Shelf Control #169: A Night in the Lonesome October by Roger Zelazny

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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: A Night in the Lonesome October
Author: Roger Zelazny
Published: 1993
Length: 288 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

Loyally accompanying a mysterious knife-wielding gentleman named Jack on his midnight rounds through the murky streets of London, good dog Snuff is busy helping his master collect the grisly ingredients needed for an unearthly rite that will take place not long after the death of the moon. But Snuff and his master are not alone. All manner of participants, both human and not, are gathering with their ancient tools and their animal familiars in preparation for the dread night. It is brave, devoted Snuff who must calculate the patterns of the Game and keep track of the Players—the witch, the mad monk, the vengeful vicar, the Count who sleeps by day, the Good Doctor and the hulking Experiment Man he fashioned from human body parts, and a wild-card American named Larry Talbot—all the while keeping Things at bay and staying a leap ahead of the Great Detective, who knows quite a bit more than he lets on.

Boldly original and wildly entertaining, A Night in the Lonesome October is a darkly sparkling gem, an amalgam of horror, humor, mystery, and fantasy. First published in 1993, it was Zelazny’s last book prior to his untimely death. Many consider it the best of the fantasy master’s novels. It has inspired many fans to read it every year in October, a chapter a day, and served as inspiration for Neil Gaiman’s brilliant story “Only the End of the World Again.”

And further info from Wikipedia:

A Night in the Lonesome October is a novel by American writer Roger Zelazny published in 1993, near the end of his life. It was his last book, and one of his five personal favorites.

The book is divided in 32 chapters, each representing one “night” in the month of October (plus one “introductory” chapter). The story is told in the first-person, akin to journal entries. Throughout, 33 full-page illustrations by Gahan Wilson (one per chapter, plus one on the inside back cover) punctuate a tale heavily influenced by H. P. Lovecraft. The title is a line from Edgar Allan Poe’s “Ulalume” and Zelazny thanks him as well as others – Mary Shelley, Bram Stoker, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Robert Bloch and Albert Payson Terhune – whose most famous characters appear in the book.

The story reveals that once every few decades when the moon is full on the night of Halloween, the fabric of reality thins and doors may be opened between this world and the realm of the Great Old Ones. When these conditions are right, men and women with occult knowledge may gather at a specific ritual site to hold the doors closed, or to help fling them open. Should the Closers win, then the world will remain as it is until the next turning… but should the Openers succeed, then the Great Old Ones will come to Earth, to remake the world in their own image (enslaving or slaughtering the human race in the process). The Openers have never yet won. These meetings are often referred to as “The Game” or “The Great Game” by the participants, who try to keep the goings-on secret from the mundane population.

How and when I got it:

I bought a used copy online a couple of years ago, after spending some time tracking down a copy.

Why I want to read it:

I’ve seen this book mentioned on all sorts of blogs and book lists over the years. I’ve read books 1 – 5 of Zelazny’s Amber books (loved them… one of these days, I need to read the rest!). I’ve been wanting to read this one for a while, but now is not the time: I hear that the ideal reading approach is to read one chapter per night during the month of October, and I’m totally up for that! I’m so glad I just re-discovered this lurking on my bookshelf. Now I’m all set for a spooky Halloween read!

What do you think? Would you read this book?

Please share your thoughts!

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Book Review: The Diviners

Book Review: The Diviners by Libba Bray

Roaring 20s. Jazz Age. Prohibition. Flappers.

Libba Bray perfectly captures the excitement and glamour of 1920s Manhattan in her newest young adult novel, The Diviners. Set in New York in 1926, The Diviners is a long book (500+ pages) with a sprawling cast of characters whose lives intersect amid the outward glitter of jazz clubs, boisterous parties, and daring girls looking to get noticed. The bright lights and loud music mask a darker underbelly, as a nation recovers from war, teeters on the brink of the coming economic disaster, reacts to political activism and division, and fails to take note of the growing blackness creeping into the world.

Main character Evie O’Neill is a sparkling, au courant flapper, a 17-year-old shining star stuck in small-town Zenith, Ohio, until her need to show off at a party gets her “exiled” to live with her eccentric uncle in Manhattan. Evie’s uncle, William Fitzgerald, is the director of the Museum of American Folklore, Superstition, and the Occult — or the Museum of the Creepy Crawlies, as it’s known in popular parlance. A confirmed bachelor, Will oversees a dusty collection that no one visits and give lectures on the occult and the supernatural. When Evie arrives, she’s not content to just sit around a fusty old museum and immediately throws herself into the whirlwind of high times in New York.

Unfortunately, there’s a killer on the loose, who begins leaving a trail of ritually mutilated bodies. The killer is soon dubbed The Pentacle Killer by the sensation-seeking tabloid press, and Evie and her uncle are thrust into the action as they begin consulting with the police on the occult symbolism surrounding the bodies.

Evie crosses paths with an array of memorable characters, including showgirl Theta, who ran away from a troubled past and reinvented herself on the New York stage; Theta’s best friend Henry, a talented piano player with a secret life; Memphis, a good-looking Harlem numbers-runner who longs to be a poet; Memphis’s younger brother Isaiah, prone to odd dreams and prophecies; Jericho, Will’s stoic assistant with his own secrets to keep; and many more.

Secrets abound. Each of the main characters has a hidden gift — a secret power — which must remain guarded. But as the killer works toward the climax of a foretold ritual designed to bring about the end of times, Evie and others are called upon to use their talents to unearth the clues that may empower them to save themselves and their world. This group of people, of diverse backgrounds and with differing talents, soon realize that they are part of a prophecied group called the Diviners, who will play a part in defeating a darkness yet to come.

Libba Bray succeeds beautifully in The Diviners in conjuring forth a time and place gone by. Her descriptions of Manhattans’s sights, smells, and sounds, the glamor of the flapper girls, the allure of hot jazz clubs — all are rendered so precisely that you can feel them come alive. Evie and friends use the lingo of the times to great effect: Evie asks for “giggle water” when she’s looking for a nip of gin; she frequently pronounces things “the bee’s knees” or “the cat’s pajamas”; her speech is peppered with “posititutely” and “you bet-ski”… and it’s all quite delicious. Evie is witty, charming, and quick on her feet (“A murder! Oh, my. Let me just change my shoes.”); she uses her flapper attitude to cope with the grief of her older brother’s death in the Great War, and never lets on that there is a sorrow underneath her fun-times demeanor.

Fabulous too is the looming sense of dread, which grows darker and scarier throughout the book as the killer moves closer and closer to fulfilling the prophecies, and it becomes clear that the threat is beyond human, and may well be unstoppable. The supernatural elements are unveiled bit by bit, and the creepiness amps up as the plot hurtles forward.

The Diviners is both an excellent period piece and a creepy occult murder mystery, with heavy doses of prophecies of doom and mystical dreams of strange times to come. If the book had ended with the resolution of the pentacle killings, it would have made a terrific stand-alone novel. However, it doesn’t end there. The Diviners is the first in a series, and I’m a bit uncertain as to where the story may go or how long the series will end up being. The author has established the group of characters who form the Diviners, and it’s clear that they will continue down the path of fighting some mysterious being whose shape has yet to be fully revealed or understood. I look forward to spending more time with the enchanting Evie and her eclectic group of friends and colleagues. I trust that, in Libba Bray’s deliciously talented hands, the story will continue to be engaging, colorful, and creepy. I just hope that the series will have a strong finish, rather than turning into an open-ended story without an end-point. Still, despite my hesitation over getting involved in a new series, it’s clear that The Diviners is something special, and I look forward to seeing what happens next.