Apparently 2022 is the year I decided to become a Leigh Bardugo fangirl. So far I’ve read the Shadow and Bone trilogy as well as the Six of Crows duology from her Grishaverse, and now without even planning it I’ve read another Bardugo novel. I have literally no idea why or when I added this to my library queue, other than that I first put it on hold before reading any of her other books, and I was probably half way through it before I noticed that the author was the same as the Grishaverse YA series. Ninth House (currently a standalone, but planned to be part of a series) gives us a full view of the grittier, more mature content that Bardugo hinted at being capable of in Six of Crows and runs with it, complete with sex, violence, and the occult. This is decidedly not a YA book, and I highly suggest you look up a list of content warnings before reading.
Alex Stern sees ghosts. Or “grays” as they’re called by members of Yale’s elite, secret societies devoted to different branches of the occult and dark magic. This capability is what brought Alex – perhaps the most unlikely of Ivy Leaguers – to Yale’s campus. She is a high school dropout, has a history of drug use, and is mysteriously the sole survivor found at the scene of an unsolved multiple homicide. Despite this background, she is given a full ride scholarship in order to join Lethe, the titular “Ninth House,” which watches over the other eight secret societies and ensures that their occult activities remain hidden. As Alex dives deeper into the power and privilege that these societies wield, she learns just how sinister these forces can be, and the lengths to which members will go to protect their secrets.
Bardugo’s work has often explored genre in a way I find both interesting and entertaining – the Shadow and Bone books hit basically every YA fantasy trope available, while Six of Crows layers fantasy with an epic heist tale. Ninth House combines murder mystery with horror, and I enjoyed being along for the ride with Alex while she uncovers clues and figures out who her allies and enemies are. Throughout all of this, the plot often explores privilege, wealth, and trauma – what makes Yale students more important than New Haven “townies,” and why do some lives seem to hold more value than others? Who chooses which human lives are expendable? Alex sees herself in the victims and cast-offs of society, and is acutely aware of how easily she could have been written off as just another dead girl in her former life – after all, as she observes, “there were always excuses for why girls died.” She also is a stubborn, sometimes vicious survivor, and we see her taking brutal revenge against wrong-doers at a few different points in the book. To borrow her words again, “crazy survives.”
Alex is a complex character – startlingly funny, achingly vulnerable, and tough-as-nails by turn. She’s a more than worthy main character to follow down this eerie path, and to make matters even better Bardugo continues to showcase her skill at populating her stories with rich supporting characters as well: Darlington, who never stops chasing magic even when it almost kills him. Pamela Dawes, a seemingly uptight research assistant with a fierce streak of loyalty. Abel Turner, a gruff and reluctant detective turned tenacious ally. Additionally, Bardugo builds magic systems with the exact right amount of details for my taste – magic is not too easy or entirely reliant on talent. It requires care and practice, but the system is not so bogged down in detail to pull attention from the characters or plot. In The Ninth House, this is all tied together with appropriately spooky backdrops, which include exclusive occult parties, dark rituals, and venerable mansions.
Ninth House checked a lot of boxes for me. I highly recommend checking it out if you enjoy paranormal mysteries and spooky vibes.