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Review: Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo

Review: Ninth House by Leigh BardugoNinth House (Alex Stern, #1) by Leigh Bardugo
Published by Flatiron Books on October 8, 2019
Pages: 458
Format: Hardcover

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. By age twenty, in fact, 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 elite universities on a full ride. What’s the catch, and why her?
Still searching for answers to this herself, Alex arrives in New Haven tasked by her mysterious benefactors with monitoring the activities of Yale’s secret societies. These eight windowless “tombs” are well-known to be haunts of the future rich and powerful, from high-ranking politicos to Wall Street and Hollywood’s biggest players. But their occult activities are revealed to be more sinister and more extraordinary than any paranoid imagination might conceive.

The mesmerizing adult debut from #1 New York Times bestselling author Leigh Bardugo.

Where do I even begin with you, Ninth House?

Look. I don’t like Six of Crows or the Grisha trilogy.

I’M SORRY, OKAY? I don’t like fantasies (a mind-boggling situation considering my preteen years were steeped almost exclusively in Tamora Pierce books), and honestly I don’t care how cool of a package you wrap a historical fantasy up in, at the end of the day it is still a historical fantasy, and I am going to grow weary of it. But I gave Ninth House a chance, because I just felt like it wouldn’t steer me wrong. I’m super glad I did.



How I’d Describe This Book to a Friend

This book is pretty fucked up. I don’t take that lightly – after all, I read a lot of thrillers and a lot of books that entail some pretty messed-up stuff. If you’re here for witty romantic banter and playful ribbing, this isn’t it. (Granted, there is lots of playful ribbing, but it’s not in the cutesy way you might have your heart set). This book took me two weeks to read: not because it was boring, but because it insisted on being given its due, on having me take my time.

I can’t give too much detail, because it will ruin the magical spell that Bardugo has effortlessly woven. But what I can do is say this: Galaxy (Alex) Stern can see ghosts (known in this universe as greys). She has been able to do so all of her life, and it has led her to some pretty bad places – getting in with a bad crowd, dropping out of high school, the usual. So one day when Alex wakes up in a hospital bed, confused after a pretty terrible accident that left everyone but Alex dead at the scene of the crime, she is a little disoriented. Doubly so when she learns that she has an offer she can’t refuse – the societies (houses) at Yale University aren’t just rich kid clubs, but they are fully rooted in some dark stuff, and there exists a ninth house to control them: Lethe. That ninth house has heard about what Alex is capable of (though how she doesn’t know), and they want her help in exchange for admittance to Yale, a free ride, and the help of a young man named Daniel Arlington who is charged with teaching her everything he knows.

Darlington (10/10 nickname, by the way) was not expecting Alex to be his protegee – but she is what he’s got. Well, maybe what he had? We learn very quickly on that Darlington is missing, and nobody is sure they’ll be able to bring him back from wherever it is he’s gone. Like I said, Yale is into some pretty dark shit. And I loved every minute of it.

The Bottom Line

Saying much more would really do Ninth House a disservice, so I won’t. But I will say this: it is over 400 pages, and the first 150 or so are pure world building. I had to look up a lot of words and learn their definitions, make notes, etc. This falls away fairly quickly once you wrap your head around the concept of all the different societies, and what you’re left with is a delicious, tangibly good story about the seedy underbelly of one of America’s most prestigious colleges. These societies are real – the places described are places you could go and lay hands on right now. Bardugo creates amazing scenery with wonderful tensions running through it, and I really felt the cold wind as I stood on the Yale sidewalks next to Alex. I was right there with her, and I delighted in her. She is not the average protagonist, and not in a Not Like Other Girls way either.

The other thing I’ll touch on briefly is the content/trigger warnings. There are a lot of them for Ninth House – it doesn’t skimp on details. However, as a survivor of sexual assault myself I found it about on par with a Stephen King book in terms of how graphic it was and how much I could stomach it – I felt like I was there with Alex, but I didn’t feel so in it that I felt queasy and sick like I sometimes do in a King novel.

This book is a love letter to women everywhere, but especially women who have endured (and let’s face it, in some small way every woman has endured). Alex has the same feelings so many of us have had about assault, abuse, soured relationships and bad blood – and I saw parts of myself in her every step of the way. We are all Galaxy Stern, to some extent, and that’s the real magic of Ninth House. Granted, there are also ghosts, live autopsies, death rituals, secret occult movements, and a lot of delicious-sounding food, but the real magic here might be the friends we made along the way. (There is a lot of girl power here, between Alex’s roommates and her Lethe colleague, Dawes – we are all Dawes, and we all want to be Dawes, bookish and quiet, but forceful and stubborn when the pedal meets the metal).

Give Ninth House a chance. I can’t wait to go back to Yale, hopefully next Fall, and sink back into Alex’s well-worn shoes. I’d do it time and time again.

(Look, this book is so quotable and I am not sorry)

“But would it have mattered if she’d been someone else? If she’d been a social butterfly, they would have said she liked to drink away her pain. If she’d been a straight-A student, they would have said she’d been eaten alive by her perfectionism. There were always excuses for why girls died.”

“This is where you belong. This is where you were meant to bloom. Don’t roll your eyes, Galaxy. Not every flower belongs in every garden.”

“What do you want?” Belbalm had asked her. Safety, comfort, to feel unafraid. I want to live to grow old, Alex thought as she pulled the curtains closed. I want to sit on my porch and drink foul-smelling tea and yell at passersby. I want to survive this world that keeps trying to destroy me.”

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