Content Warning: sexual violence
When Alex Stern wakes in a hospital bed after a night full of drugs that resulted in the death of her closest friend, there is a man she has never seen before sitting beside her. He makes her an offer, and Alex is not in a position to refuse: after a life of substance abuse and poverty, his offer for her to attend Yale on a full ride seems too good to be true.
And it is; there’s something that he needs from her, something she can do that no one else can: Alex can see Grays, the shadowy ghosts of the dead that haunt the earth in the condition that they died in. They carry gunshot wounds and dismembered limbs. This makes her an invaluable asset to Lethe, the organization that regulates the ancient societies on campus.
“Ninth House,” author Leigh Bardugo’s adult debut, is a reimagining of Yale’s secret societies (exclusive student social clubs on campus) as occult organizations that use magic to bring power and wealth to their alumni. The book begins with a ritual that involves analyzing the organs of a kidnapped hospital patient so the members can predict the activity of the New York Stock Exchange and NASDAQ markets. There are also rituals to make a member’s book a bestseller or make a crappy song rise to number two in the charts.
As in real life, there are eight societies in total, each specializing in a different type of magic and each with an impressive list of alumni to boast: George H. W. Bush was a member of the Skull and Bones society, Jodie Foster was a member of the Manuscript Society, and so on.
Alex is brought to Yale to train as a member of Lethe under a senior named Darlington, who is the “golden boy” of Lethe. Readers know that Darlington has disappeared, but they don’t know how or why; his mentorship of Alex is revealed in flashbacks. The witty banter Alex and Darlington share in these flashbacks make their exchanges one of the highlights of the novel.
When the Grays start acting strangely at the societies’ rituals and a New Haven resident mysteriously dies, it becomes clear that there is more to the societies than Alex first thought, and that they may even have had something to do with Darlington’s disappearance.
Bardugo is an undeniably talented world builder. She has a way of describing places and people that makes it easy to believe in a world in which every billionaire and pop star owes their status to the magic of ancient societies.
“Ninth House” also showcases Bardugo’s talent in writing complex and unusual protagonists. Alex Stern is not exactly a conventional hero, as she has a history of drug use and dealing. She also allows harm to come to others so she can save herself in tough situations, and might be a murderer. The layered complexity Bardugo has given Alex makes it possible to dislike her and find her completely alluring and real at the same time, a paradox that makes her story a compelling read.
The novel has a complex plot typical of Bardugo’s novels, but despite the twists and turns the book still feels slightly predictable. The plot is not as satisfying as that of Bardugo’s earlier novel, “Six of Crows,” which was a surprising story that managed to also feel enjoyably inevitable at its end.
Nevertheless, Bardugo has created a novel with just the right amount of mystery and spine-chilling scenarios that make it a perfect book for readers looking to get into the Halloween spirit. Occasionally, the sex and violence in the book feel like they’re meant simply to enter the novel into the “adult” category and not to drive the plot or characters forward. For example, it is revealed that Alex was raped by a Gray when she was little. The description of the event explains why Alex was afraid of the Grays when she came to Yale, but still feels unnecessarily jarring.
One of the main plot lines in the novel goes unresolved, suggesting that a sequel is likely to follow. The events that occur at the end of the book promises the aspects of the novel that make “Ninth House” an enjoyable read—like Alex’s relationships with her fellow Lethe members—will be more prominent in the following stories. If anything, readers may be prompted to pick up another book about Alex Stern not because “Ninth House” was necessarily stellar, but because the sequel promises to be even better.
Sophie Wazlowski can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.