Bingo Square: Fresh Start (Alex Stern, Book 1)
I haven’t read too much by Leigh Bardugo – I wasn’t a big fan of the first novel in her Shadow and Bone trilogy – despite the interesting world building, I found the heroine boring and the forced love triangle that was almost mandatory in YA for a while included love interests with such extreme differences that it was a bit too obvious.
I had heard from many people that her duology Six of Crows set in the same universe was much better but I haven’t quite gotten around to them. I have, however, read her YA Wonder Woman novel, part of a DC series where they had popular YA novelists write books about some of their heroes. I hadn’t really grown up on Wonder Woman but I absolutely loved War Breaker – it, more than the movie, made me interested in the character and view her as complex, intelligent and caring super hero.
Given the cover art, I had for some reason assumed Ninth House was another novel set in the Grishaverse, and thus I was hesitant to pick it up until I was caught up with some of the other work in that series. It was only recently when a friend was talking about this novel that I realized it was set at Yale, and explored the politics of mysterious societies like Skull and Bones that promised its members power, money and prestige in return for some less than savory occult actions.
Alex Stern did not grow up in this world, nor would she have ever made it to Yale under normal conditions – she is struggling to keep up with her responsibilities and her duties, but she knows this is her one shot. Only a year ago, Alex was living on the wrong side of the track. However, her special ability to see the dead makes her valuable to Yale’s secret societies so they have created a new history for her and enrolled her at Yale. In exchange, she is part of Lethe House, the ninth of the secret houses, created to monitor and oversee the Ancient 8 to prevent their actions from leading to external discovery. Can’t have too many locals showing up dead as a result of failed occult ceremonies, after all!
After the prologue, the novel begins in winter when a body is discovered in the area. Alex is called to the site, and though authorities and the houses quickly want to write it off as a random murder, something about it calls to Alex as suspicious. It also reminds her of some metaphorical demons from her past, and she feels a strong need to find the truth and bring justice to the young woman left dead in the street. Normally, Alex would still be in training, the Dante to a Virgil, but her Virgil is absent at the moment, leaving her to fumble around on her own without Darlington (Daniel Arlington).
Like many novels, Bardugo uses parallel time lines to reveal more as the story goes and keep the reader engaged, flashing between Alex’s perspective and her investigation, and Darlington’s perspective as he was training this very unique Dante. While it seemed that the relationship between Darlington and Alex could easily have been treated as antagonistic – they have very different backgrounds and approaches, and they view their responsibilities very differently, but they actually develop a friendly but difficult relationship that enriches both of them.
After writing novels set in a more fantastical world, I was impressed with how well Bardugo shifted to a very real world setting for this one (even if it has societies engaging in occult ceremonies that actually work) – it was dark and gritty, and I wanted to know more about the different houses and their ceremonies, and where Darlington was. It took me some time to warm to Alex but I was always interested in her, and her development and growth were incredibly well done. I hope Bardugo releases the next in this series soon, especially given the way she ended this one!