Ninth House: Black magic in Yale’s secret societies

Reposting to include Marion’s new review.

Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsThe Broken Crown by Michelle West science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsNinth 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.

Leigh Bardugo

Leigh Bardugo

Silly me.

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.

~Tadiana Jones

Ninth House by Leigh BardugoNinth House by Leigh BardugoNinth 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.

~Marion Deeds

Published in 2019. The mesmerizing adult debut from Leigh Bardugo, a tale of power, privilege, dark magic, and murder set among the Ivy League elite. 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. In fact, by age twenty, 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 prestigious universities on a full ride. What’s the catch, and why her? Still searching for answers, Alex arrives in New Haven tasked by her mysterious benefactors with monitoring the activities of Yale’s secret societies. Their eight windowless “tombs” are the well-known haunts of the rich and powerful, from high-ranking politicos to Wall Street’s biggest players. But their occult activities are more sinister and more extraordinary than any paranoid imagination might conceive. They tamper with forbidden magic. They raise the dead. And, sometimes, they prey on the living.

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TADIANA JONES, on our staff since July 2015, is an intellectual property lawyer with a BA in English. She inherited her love of classic and hard SF from her father and her love of fantasy and fairy tales from her mother. She lives with her husband and four children in a small town near the mountains in Utah. Tadiana juggles her career, her family, and her love for reading, travel and art, only occasionally dropping balls. She likes complex and layered stories and characters with hidden depths. Favorite authors include Lois McMaster Bujold, Brandon Sanderson, Robin McKinley, Connie Willis, Isaac Asimov, Larry Niven, Megan Whalen Turner, Patricia McKillip, Mary Stewart, Ilona Andrews, and Susanna Clarke.

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Marion Deeds, with us since March, 2011, is the author of the fantasy novella ALUMINUM LEAVES. Her short fiction has appeared in the anthologies BEYOND THE STARS, THE WAND THAT ROCKS THE CRADLE, STRANGE CALIFORNIA, and in Podcastle, The Noyo River Review, Daily Science Fiction and Flash Fiction Online. She’s retired from 35 years in county government, and spends some of her free time volunteering at a second-hand bookstore in her home town. You can read her blog at, and follow her on Twitter: @mariond_d.

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  1. Yep, this sounds like occult horror all right. Maybe a bit of social commentary/satire about privilege, too. I’ll have to grill Terry about it this weekend at FOGCon and decide if I want to read it. I did love SIX OF CROWS.

    • I loved the Six of Crows duology as well, so it surprised me that I found this one so off-putting. It’s definitely an adult/new adult novel; Bardugo doesn’t pull any punches here.

      I’m hoping Terry will add her review here sometime soon. It would be great to get her opposite views.

      • Paul Connelly /

        I had a more positive reaction than you, but I also skimmed over some of the more Grand Guignol moments, as I also do sometimes in grimdark novels. Right from the first scene I took it as being very dark, cutting satire. When you see Skull & Bones men (past members include Presidents George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush plus candidate John Kerry) reading the entrails of a homeless man to get stock market investment info, that’s a pretty darn good metaphor for what our lords and masters have been doing to poor Americans for the last 40 years.

        My only real complaint was she tried to throw in too many twists toward the end of the book.

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