I received this book as part of last year’s holiday book exchange (thank you coffeeshopreader for yet ANOTHER outstanding choice!). Having never read any of Leigh Bardugo’s books but having seen them glowingly reviewed here, I thought it was time to see what the fuss is about. Ninth House is definitely worthy of fuss, and I am already looking forward to the next volume. This fantasy novel is set in New Haven, Connecticut, at Yale University, and at heart it is a detective novel with a supernatural twist. Bardugo serves up thrilling and dangerous exploits along with grisly crime and a tough, hardened sleuth who is a 20-year-old California girl with a past.
Galaxy Stern, aka Alex, is the unlikeliest of Yale students. She does not come from wealth, nor is she academically gifted. In fact, Alex dropped out of school and ran away from home in her early teens, hooking up with drug users and dealers. We know that she nearly died from this lifestyle and that her best friend Hellie did die, but from this horror an opportunity was born. Yale professor Elliot Sandow visits Alex in the hospital and makes an amazing offer to her — entrance to Yale. Why? Because Sandow knows that Alex possesses the highly unusual ability to see ghosts, a power that Yale’s Ninth House Lethe values greatly. This is where things got really fun for me. Bardugo takes Yale’s well known “house” system and adds a magical and sinister layer to it. Skull and Bones is probably the most famous house at Yale, thanks to William F. Buckley, Jr., and there has always been mystery around these houses because of the secrecy that their members wrap themselves in. Bardugo takes this to the next level, creating a world where these houses actually do practice magic. Yes, the one percent use magic to manipulate wealth, markets, contracts, fame, international espionage, the weather, and more! Elliot Sandow oversees Lethe, the most secret house of all, created to more or less police the other houses in their use of magic. Naturally, when you let a bunch of college kids have access to rituals, potions, talismans and so on, they might misuse or abuse these gifts, and such things have occurred in Yale’s past. Enter Lethe house, the “shepherds” or “knights” who make sure all magical practices are safe and legit. Lethe is a very small house, consisting of its sponsor Sandow; an “oculus” or researcher named Dawes; a “centurion” or local police detective named Turner; a “Virgil” or senior guide/mentor named Darlington; and Virgil’s “Dante” or pupil Alex. Darlington is not pleased with his recruit. He is a gentleman scholar, from an old wealthy family, and he takes his responsibilities seriously. Alex, for her part, feels very much the fish out of water. She feels that she does not belong at Yale, but this place is far safer than California ever was. Or is it?
Only a few months into her freshman year, a host of very dangerous situations arise amongst the houses. At a routine Skull and Bones ritual (involving a Haruspex reading the entrails of a living person!!), ghosts or “grays” begin acting strangely and an unusual boom can be heard. Meanwhile, a local young woman named Tara, a known drug user and dealer, is found brutally stabbed to death near campus. Alex senses something very strange about the murder, which university officials are pleased to announce has nothing to do with Yale. But as Darlington and Alex police the other houses, they learn that their members could have been linked to Tara and perhaps were engaged in illicit activities. The plot is complicated by the fact that some of the houses have lost their “tombs,” i.e., a house that sits on a kind of magical wellspring, and that they are eager to get them back. Moreover, after Alex and Darlington perform a magical clean-up in one of the houses, Darlington disappears before Alex’s eyes, leaving her without a mentor as the dangers rise on the Yale campus.
There are a lot of complicated twists and turns in the plot, but the story is so interesting, it really is worth the effort to keep up. Moreover, Bardugo has created a really strong cast of characters for Alex to work with. The oculus Dawes seems aloof and perhaps even resentful of Alex at first, but she will become a trusty and brilliant sidekick. Turner, the civilian detective, detests his job working with magic at Yale and doesn’t much care for Alex, but as he sees the evil unfolding, he will become an important ally for Alex. Mercy and Lauren are Alex’s roommates who know nothing about Lethe house or Alex’s talents. They provide her with something like a “normal” college experience and real friendship (and Alex will prove herself to be an amazing friend whom you would not want to cross). Darlington is a “good cop” and detective who seems to have learned some things about Alex and about Yale’s history that put him jeopardy. And then there is Bertram Boyce North, aka the “bridegroom,” a ghost who has haunted Yale for 150 years. The story is that he murdered his fiancé and then killed himself. Can Alex trust him? The ghost angle in this novel is fascinating. Alex has seen ghosts her whole life, and they terrify her because she has had them physically attack her — something that Alex learns is highly unusual. What is it about Alex that makes her so open to seeing and interacting with them? The common knowledge at Lethe is that you do not make direct eye contact with grays or learn/say their names, as that invites them to get closer to you and it’s hard to undo that. What is the strange relationship that Alex has with the grays and why does she have it?
Alex’s journey in this novel involves slowly revisiting and revealing her past to the reader, stumbling forward to uncover Tara’s murderer and protect those who are relying on her, trying to figure out whom she can trust, and discovering what it is that she really wants out of life and her time at Yale. There is a whole lot to take in in in this novel — the past, magical stuff, relationships amongst characters — but it’s so well written and engrossing that I found myself not wanting to put the book down. I am very happy to see that Bardugo envisions several more Galaxy Stern novels. The novel ends with a cliffhanger, and I’m impatient to learn what happens to Alex and her friends.