by Leigh Bardugo
“I want to survive this world that keeps trying to destroy me.”
Published Oct. 8, 2019 by Flatiron Books
Genre: dark urban fantasy
Date finished: Nov. 26, 2019
Content warnings: rape and sexual assault, drug abuse and overdose, gore, physical abuse, self harm
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)
Listen: there’s a REASON everyone calls Leigh Bardugo the queen of fantasy.
In her first foray into adult fantasy, Bardugo takes us into the dark tombs and secret societies of Yale, where some of the country’s most powerful people perform rituals to manipulate the world around them. Alex Stern is the newest recruit into Lethe, the ninth house that oversees all the others. When her mentor goes missing and a girl from New Haven turns up dead, Alex knows she has to figure out whatever is going on around her.
This book is dark, gritty, and distressing. Its main character is a woman constantly punching her way out of every situation because she doesn’t know how to survive any other way. It deals with some similar themes, such as trauma and survival, from Bardugo’s others books, but in an even bleaker way.
All that said, I loved it.
The protagonist, Alex Stern, was definitely one of my favorite aspects. She’s scrappy and tough because she’s had to be all her life; she feels like she doesn’t belong in the academic world of Yale; she’s been hurt so many times but she’s still driven by a strong sense of right. Even though she gets knocked down over and over in this book, she keeps getting back up and surprising everyone around her with her resilience.
And there were plenty of other wonderful characters as well! Darlington, who I loved instantly because he’s basically Gansey from The Raven Boys, and because I apparently have a soft spot for that exact character archetype. Dawes, who I would protect with my life. Turner, the police officer who keeps getting unwillingly dragged into Alex’s mess. Etc., etc. Leigh Bardugo really knows how to construct an ensemble cast.
I loved so many of the topics that were dealt with in this book, but particularly how it looked at privilege and belonging. Yale is a world where affluence is a suit of armor protecting people from repercussions for their actions. Alex, who lost that sense of safety a long time ago, is horrified by the entitlement she sees around her. Despite everyone telling her that this is how it has always been, she is determined to break the system and make sure that justice is served. All the while, she feels more and more out of place in this world of academia and abundance. Even though this book is fantasy, so many of these ideas are rooted in reality, with the fantastical and the realistic woven together perfectly.
Speaking of which, I’m not sure if I now want to visit Yale or never go near it in my life. I know that Yale’s secret societies are real, and though they probably don’t actually perform magical rituals, the idea is slightly terrifying nonetheless. I couldn’t even tell you where the line between reality and Bardugo’s imagination in this book lies. It took me a long time to understand the whole society system, which is my main complaint of this book, since I think it expected us to understand some things before they were properly explained. But nonetheless, Bardugo made them feel so real, to the point that I had to keep reminding myself that they’re not.
As usual with Leigh Bardugo’s writing, I have nothing but praise to give. She creates a hauntingly beautiful portrait of New Haven, populated by ghosts and occultists and exhausted college students. While reading, I shuddered, I gasped, I blinked back tears. I felt like I was there with Alex along her whole journey.
Ninth House has been one of the buzziest books of this fall, and now I can fully understand why. Even though my expectations were high going in, I was not at all disappointed. This book deals with trauma, survival, privilege, and so much more against a ghostly, fantastical backdrop, and I cannot wait to see whatever comes next.
“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.”