Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo
Galaxy “Alex” Stern (the name courtesy of her hippie mother) seems an obvious misfit at prestigious Yale University. Wealth, athletic talent and academic stardom are nowhere to be found in Alex’s life. Instead she’s a high school dropout with a history of dead-end jobs and drug use, and the survivor of a traumatic multiple homicide. But she has a rare talent that to date has brought her nothing but grief: Alex sees the ghosts of dead people.
As it turns out, that talent is highly useful to Yale’s eight elite secret societies, and they’ve had their eye on Alex for a while. Each of these houses specializes in a different type of black magic — Skull and Bones, for example, performs ritual vivisections of living people, examining their inner organs to predict stock market changes — and these dark rituals attract ghosts. A ninth Yale house, Lethe, polices the magical activities of those other eight houses and is tasked with keeping the ghosts in check, preventing them from causing chaos. Alex gets a full ride scholarship to Yale, provided that she joins Lethe. When a “townie” girl is murdered, Alex feels compelled to investigate it, gradually unearthing a hidden world of corruption, abuse of privilege and evil.
I was warned by a friend that Ninth House (2019), Leigh Bardugo’s new contemporary dark fantasy, might be too grim for me, but I was all, I love Leigh Bardugo! I gotta give it a shot! The SIX OF CROWS duology is dark fantasy, so I thought I was prepared.
Ninth House features an onslaught of horrible events, one piling on the next. The trigger list is almost too long to get into, but it includes the aforementioned vivisection, drug abuse, self-neglect, murder … and that’s just in the parts I read or skimmed. I’m reliably informed that its plot also includes child and statutory rape, other types of sexual assault, and forcible eating of human waste. It’s a deeply unpleasant world that Alex Stern lives in, and I realized fairly quickly that I didn’t want to live in it with her, not even for the few days it would take to read this book.
I’m not much of a fan of horror literature in general, and occult horror in particular. You may like Ninth House if you’re a fan of occult horror and are mentally and emotionally up to dealing with the morass of human failings and foul deeds. Ninth House is well-written and detailed, but arguably too detailed and slow-paced. It examines the patriarchy of our society and the unearned privileges of rich white men, who do most (though not all) of the ugly things in this book. Alex herself is a hard-edged survivor, but still struggling to recover from past traumas and to survive the pressures of life at Yale.
This is clearly one of those “your mileage may vary” types of books. Two of our other Fantasy Literature reviewers have checked out Ninth House: Jana skimmed through it and said that was enough to let her know that this isn’t a book for her. Terry, who enjoys horror novels, loved it.
Ninth House was an immersive contemporary fantasy read, with an unusual setting, but the thing I liked best was the character of Alex, short for Galaxy, Stern. Urban fantasies abound with women MCs who grew up rough, but Alex’s version was one of the more compelling ones. I understood from early in the story that her drug use was self-medicating, but the moment when I as the reader learned that not only could she see and hear the ghosts, but that they could see her, and touch her, was chilling and terrifying.
I loved Alex’s “mundane” challenges in the story as she seeks to fit in at Yale. While I felt a smidge of disappointment that academic challenges wouldn’t be included, since her grades would be “fixed,” I enjoyed watching her interact with her roommates as well as the privileged children of power.
There are many things to love about Bardugo’s book: the magic, the clear-eyed gaze used to describe New Haven and the Ivy League university, the humor and dry wit, and so on. The element that made the story feel different and original to me, though, is still fish-out-of-water Alex. I’m pleased I got to meet her and I look forward to sharing her next adventure.