Book Review: Ninth House
Author Webpage: "Ninth House" | Leigh Bardugo
Serious Triggers: Rape and Sexual Assault, Narcotics, Hallucinogens, Death
Other Triggers: Pale Male Yales (attn: Urban Dictory), Denial to Yale (after applying to Yale specifically because you always wanted to be in a secret society & have been bitter ever since), Latin, Marijuana (14 states & D.C. have approved it. It’s not serious. Foot. Down.), the modern age of men
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.
So I saw this book in my local bookstore (Old Town Books, Alexandria, VA). I picked it up, mildly interested, then put it down. My fellow critic Emily Stallings recently read the book and practically screamed at me in our longstanding Google Chat to go read it because Gin & Tolkien deserves it.
Before I read it I looked at a couple of “Non Spoilers” reviews. Secret Societies? Ivy Leagues? Ghosts & Goolies? I’m in. I may have sacrificed my “February TBR” books for this – deal with it. It’s worth the read. Rule #5 – Schedules Suck. Don’t Make Me Follow One.
A high school drop out named Alex Stern with no seemingly apparent future – particularly in the New England Elite World – is invited to attend Yale University. Catch? She works for a “Ninth House” called “The House of Lethe” as a part-time baby sitter for the “Historic Eight” societies. I say baby sitter. The real term is ‘Dante’. Still basically a baby sitter for priveliged Pale Male Yales. Apologies for all the quotes. I like quotes. Rule #6: AP Style is dull.
In this version of Yale (I’m pretending this also exists in the real version as well), each of these societies can conjure magic that associates with drawing power “From the Veil” I.E. the afterlife, the dead, the other side, the rainbow bridge, etc. Which explains why they want Alex. She can see ghosts, spirits, the after-life. She works with a Senior named “Darlington” who you want to dislike, but damn it you love him. If you don’t, you’re wrong. Anyways, Darlington disappears. Shit conveniently goes down post-disappearance. It’s all up to Alex. Read my Long Review for details.
Similar to my past reviews, I’m going to do things a bit different than what you’ll see elsewhere. I’ll do a bit on the overall story arch, but given this book leads into a cliff hanger I think the structure of these societies, the House of Lethe and the characters are more important.
This book primarily jumps around the timeline of a specific year – but it does have the occasional flashbacks into Alex’s childhood in Los Angeles. These flashbacks explain why you get the whole “moody, never left my punk teen phase vibe” she gives off at the ripe age of 22 years old.
Also there is a map – similar to The Wheel of Time – that you can refer to for a visual of important landmarks in New Haven I.E. in the book. I LOVE having visual guides. I’m a Type A OCD reader. Beware – there are some streets that aren’t located on it, they’re just off the page. I definitely wrote those in, as it was driving me crazy.
So Alex Stern – Galaxy Stern being her real name (shout out to all the fellow kids with hippie parents) – is recruited by Yale’s Dean Sandow to be a member of the House of Lethe who babysits – I’m sorry, monitors – these eight societies. PS THOSE ARE REAL. If you ever want to go down a reallllyyyyyyyyy long rabbit hole please look up “Yale Secret Societies”.
Let me go ahead & list these Pale Male Yale groups by name & magical ghoulie powers. Oh PS these folks have “major” and “lesser” houses. Can you just picture being “kind of special” but not “majorly special?” A white man definitely decided this.
1. Skull & Bones (Old AF. OG Society. Both Bush Presidents, John Kerry, & William Howard Taft are Alum. Legit.) | Power: Divination (S/O Professor McGonnagal)
2. Scroll & Key (Probably the one I’d be in. Darlington’s Favorite. Best Tomb Entrance.) | Power: Portal Magic & Astral Projection.
3. Book & Snake (These 1st 3 were unoriginal in naming.) | Power: Necromancy
4. Wolf’s Head (Pretty badass group for a bunch of elite pansies) | Power: Therianthropy (AKA Shape shifting)
5. Manuscript (Anderson Cooper & Jodie Foster are Alum. Silver Foxes.) | Power: Mirror magic & glamour (Doesn’t Cooper glamour us all, honestly?)
6. Aurelian (Fancy Lawyers & Notaries) | Power: Logomancy AKA word binding
7. St. Elmo’s (Great Movie. They give me X Men vibes). | Power: Elemental magic & storm calling.
8. Berzelius (Honestly they’re really not a big deal in the book. The description literally says Notable Alumni: None.) | Power: None… seriously why are you an actually house.
The book starts out with Alex frightened, losing her mind, hurt and alone in a place called “The Hutch” (which I’m most definitely naming the Lady Lair of my future townhome). Most of what she says makes no sense to the reader. So IMO don’t get too frustrated. Go back after you finish the book and re-read the first chapter.
Fast forward to our first flashback, when Alex first meets Darlington – the “Virgil” to her “Dante”. I’m assuming we’ve not all been to Paris? If you haven’t, those names may be confusing. There’s a painting there at Musee d’Orsay depicting “The Divine Comedy” – it represents two souls entwined in combat. Fits, right? You could also read Dante’s Inferno, but I’m offering you a trip to Paris so…
The House of Lethe is structured as so: Dante (Freshman) reporting to Virgil (Senior) reporting to Dean Sandow (kind of like a fraternity alumni chapter head), assisted by Occulus (Dawes – the graduate student who helps keep up the house & library AKA my favorite character) and Centurion (Officer Turner – probably my 2nd favorite character but you’ll hate him for at least ½ the book forewarning).
This structure provides structure for the reader as people disappear, people get attacked, people get angry, people OD, etc. I also drew a family tree on the page after the map in the book. Feel free to also do so.
Now let’s talk about the ghosts. “The Grays”. The things Alex can see but everyone else has to take really painful sometimes deadly meds to connect with. Pretty much like any other book or movie – those who die can stick around to solve a problem. So because New Haven has a thin Veil, there’s a whole lot of ghoulie problems.
The most notable is The Bridegroom – AKA my 3rd favorite character. Incredibly moody, but his fiancé got killed & he was blamed for it. So I feel for him. He and Alex develop a “blood bond” essentially. Shit gets real. I love him. Kind of like Officer Turner – give him a chance.
This book is full of real characters. That's why it's different from other "secret society" novels. It doesn't revere the elite. It reveres the middle class, the blue collar, the real problems. Occulus is a serious introvert who just wants to finish her thesis - her part-time job at the House of Lethe is stressing her out. Officer Centurion needed money to help pay for his mother's house. He consistently thinks about quitting. The Bridegroom cannot find his dead fiance on "the other side" - he doesn't know where she is, and hopelessly blames himself. Alex just wanted to start over after getting mixed up in the wrong crowd.
Wrapping this so you can go read it, Darlington disappears. Alex must utilize her 1 semester of knowledge, secret society rituals, poor relationship with Occulus and Centurion and “blood bond” with The Bridegroom to try to save him. But… does she really want to?
Also By Leigh Bardugo: Shadow & Bone Trilogy | King of Scars (Stay Tuned)
Drink Pairing: A Sharish Blue Gin & Tonic (Sharish Gin + Tonic Water + Orange Peel garnish)
“That was what magic did. It revealed the heart of who you'd been before life took away your belief in the possible. It gave back the world all lonely children longed for.”