Title: Ninth House (Alex Stern #1)
Author: Leigh Bardugo
Publisher: Flatiron Books
Release Date: October 8th, 2019
Genre: Adult – Fantasy – Mystery
My rating in stars: 5 stars
My rating in words: New all-time favorite
WHAT IT’S ABOUT:
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.
MY THOUGHTS (SPOILER-FREE):
Well, here’s my first five-star read of 2020, and it’s a 2019 release that I’ve been procrastinating since it’s release. Another reminder not to procrastinate, kids!
Ninth House was just amazing. Truthfully, the first few chapters were a bit hard to get into, as you get really thrown into this story with a non-linear storyline with two POV’s, but I was quickly hooked. Leigh’s writing style is as beautiful and grandiose as ever, but this time there’s also a palpable darkness surrounding every phrase that just grabs you and won’t let you go. If there’s any doubt this is a dark and violent book, one of the first chapters in which one of the secret societies cuts open a man to read the future in his intestines preeetty much sets your expectations straight.
Basically, this story is about Alex Stern, a girl who can see ghosts, or Grays as they’re called here. This has undoubtedly made her life painful, so much so that she falls in with the wrong crowd, starts doing drugs and ends up the sole survivor of a multiple homicide. But then, the same ability that has made her life hell gets her invited to Yale University where she gets a job as representative of Lethe. Lethe is the “guardian” of Yale’s secret societies. Except these societies are way more sinister and occult in nature than you might have guessed. Turns out, magic is real, it’s dangerous and it’s in the hands of the secret societies. Lethe’s role is to be the “shepherds”, to make sure the societies don’t abuse their power and hurt people. Or, this is supposed to be Lethe’s role, when in reality they may be more of “fixers”, there to clean up the messes.
Alex is quite happy to get away from her previous life and enter this new one, under the guidance of her mentor Darlington. Darlington is the other POV in the story and I loved the combination of ethical, earnest Darlington with dark and mysterious Alex. But then, Darlington goes missing (another mystery to unravel throughout the book), Alex is on her own, a town girl ends up murdered and somehow the societies might be connected. And so I was hooked by all these mysteries that kept me guessing until the very end. And then had me begging for the sequel to be here, like right now. (But don’t worry, there’s no seriously painful cliffhanger, just a strong desire for more. More of this world. More of these characters. More of this gorgeous writing).
So while this book is indeed quite dark, violent and gory – way more than what I would normally be comfortable with – I did indeed fell quite in love with it. That’s because – gore aside – it managed to hit all my spots:
The worldbuilding was so intricate. Did you know Leigh Bardugo actually went to Yale and was in the Wolfshead society? (The real, not-so-occult one.) And that most of the tombs are actual buildings that exist in real-life? I love when worldbuilding is so rooted in real-life, but yet expanded into so much magical goodness. What I’m saying is: this felt so real that I felt like I was learning about the actual societies, not the fictional ones. We’re slowly learning about this world together with Alex and yet, there is so much yet to discover!
The writing was hauntingly beautiful. I have always loved Leigh Bardugo’s writing style, which is gorgeous and intricate with sentences that manage to grab you by the heart. All this is still the case in Ninth House, and yet her first adult book feels like it has an extra quality to its writing. There’s a darkness throughout, one that perfectly sets the atmosphere for the entire book and makes this the perfect read for those dark and dreary days.
The characters own my heart. This one is super important for me, and to be honest at first I thought this was gonna be a downside to Ninth House. It took a while to get to know Alex and though I ended up loving this exhausted, haunted survivor with a rattler’s soul, she had to grow on me. Add to that that she’s kind of a loner at first, keeping her distance and not forming any direct connections to any of the other characters like her roommates or the other Lethe delegates, so for the first few chapters I missed those emotional bonds. But. BUT. Though it may be slow to build, the relationships she builds with the other characters end up being the highlight of this book for me. There’s Darlington, the gentleman of Lethe, Alex’s mentor who is so intelligent and ethical and earnest and just the perfect mentor for Alex. There’s Dawes, the shy and studious Lethe representative who just wants to cook and care for the others and then plug in her headphones and not socialize, thank you very much, but who’s also such a bad ass if need be and OMG is it clear that she has just become my new all-time favorite character of ever? Every Alex-Dawes scene gave me serious heart-eyes. To round up this merry band, we have Turner, the cop who is also the Lethe liaison who would rather not have to deal with all of this magical crap. And then there are more characters that round up the gang and seriously I could read about all of their adventures all day, every day.
The issues are real. Even though this is a fantasy book, real-world issues are woven in expertly, without ever seeming like they were added in ‘just because they had to’. We deal with issues of class, sexism and misogyny. It’s a story about survivors, and girls refusing to be shut up by privilege and girls standing up for each other.
Overall – in case it wasn’t yet blatantly obvious – I highly recommend this book. Though you should definitely check the trigger warnings to see if this is for you, but if it is I hope you’ll enjoy this dark, vindictive, gory and haunted book as much as I did!
murder, violence, gore, child rape, date rape, sexual abuse, drugs, overdose, grief
“Mors irrumat omnia. Death fucks us all.”
“I let you die. To save myself, I let you die.
That is the danger in keeping company with survivors.”
“I want to survive this world that keeps trying to destroy me.”
“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.”
“You couldn’t keep sidling up to death and dipping your toe in. Eventually it grabbed your ankle and tried to pull you under.”
“Even alligators have parents, Dawes. That doesn’t stop them from biting”
“Who are these people? Alex wondered. Who are these happy, frantic, funny people? How are they so unafraid?”
“Darlington liked to say that dealing with ghosts was like riding the subway: Do not make eye contact. Do not smile. Do not engage. Otherwise, you never know what might follow you home.”