This is my year of Leigh Bardugo. In January, I finally set out to finish the Grisha Trilogy and after that, it was all Bardugo, all the way. I couldn’t keep my hands off her books, I couldn’t get enough of her characters and the darkly magical worlds she’s created, and I have now – after finishing this book – read all of her novels! Ninth House is her first book for adults (trigger warning: it gets seriously dark!) and it also kicks off a whole new series. This turned out to be one of my favorite books of 2019, so I am delighted to know there will be more!
by Leigh Bardugo
Published by: Flatiron Books, 2019
Hardcover: 458 pages
Series: Alex Stern #1
My rating: 8/10
First line: By the time Alex managed to get the blood out of her good wool coat, it was too warm to wear it.
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.
Alex Stern has a second chance at life. After something horrible happened that left lots of people dead, she is given the opportunity to study at Yale and also work for a secret society that monitors other secret societies. There is already so much coolness in the setup of this story that I don’t really know where to start my gushing. So let’s just dive in head-first.
Alex, although she has made some seriously bad life choices, is a wonderful character right from the start. She knows she is in over her head, she has a hard time keeping up with her curriculum, she struggles with her grades, and – oh yeah – there’s all that magic business that she has to learn about, in addition to just handling an already difficult life. As the new Dante (code names are a thing here), she is being tutored by the old Dante, who is now the Virgil. This guy’s real name is Darlington (well, Daniel Arlington) and he is… let’s say not too pleased that he couldn’t pick his own successor but was forced to take on Alex. A girl who didn’t finish high school, who has a history of drug use, and was the only survivor at a terrible murder scene. But Darlington is nothing if not a gentleman and he is willing to do his very best with what he was given.
Although we see Darlington only in the flashback chapters from when Alex was first introduced to Lethe House and their job to keep all the other Yale secret societies in check, I immediately fell in love with him. While he may appear as just another spoiled rich kid who’s had it way too easy in his life, we learn that there is a lot more to him and that, despite some wealth, easy is not exactly a good way to describe his childhood. The dynamic between Alex and Darlington was also brilliant. I kind of expected there to be a hate to love thing going on or some other tropey romance, but what I got was something much more organic and realistic. There is no hate (maybe a bit of resentment) and I’m not sure that I’d call the budding friendship that develops between them love. But they do get closer to each other and they each learn to appreciate the other’s strengths.
Speaking of strengths… I haven’t even mentioned why Alex was chosen for this job, seeing as she’s not exactly your typical candidate for an Ivy League school. Well, Alex can see ghosts, or Greys, as they are called. You can imagine how fun her childhood was, seeing people that others couldn’t. But it turns out, Lethe House and the various other societies (Skull and Bones, Book and Snake, etc.) can really use that particular superpower. Because ghosts tend to appear and sometimes disrupt their rituals, someone who can see them is a valuable asset. Because Alex is so useful, people will just have to get used to her particular brand of swear words, snark, and throwing herself into dangerous situations.
There are some other characters who started out pretty minor but who have grown quite dear to me by the end. Quiet but truly clever Dawes, who is like everyone’s mom but also socially inept, and the policeman Turner, who doesn’t really want to believe in all that magic stuff but kind of has to because, well, it’s true. I loved both of them and was so glad that throughout the novel their characters got to shine and they weren’t simply side characters who served some plot purpose.
The plot itself is a beast. Leigh Bardugo started out with a great idea, one that would have been enough for a thrilling novel. But then she throws in sub-plots, and another sub-plot, and some of them may be connected, some may just arise because Alex lives in two worlds now. The regular Yale world where she has roommates who want to go to parties and order pizza, who help her with her essays and just want to be friends; and the world of secret societies, magical mayhem, and murdered girls. The focus lies much more on the magical side but I still felt I got a glimpse of university life. In Alex’s case it’s a life where ghosts follow you around and where you may need magical eye drops to work through yet another night without any sleep. There are always many things going on at once, so when you pick up this book, don’t expect to go to sleep early. Also… be warned that the content gets very dark in a lot of ways. There are depictions of violence, lots of blood, and some scenes that are just plain disgusting.
I could say so much more about how brilliantly the plot strings fit together at the end, how Bardugo not only created a fantastic world that makes sense (as much as magic can make sense, anyway), and how she leaves just enough questions open to keep me intrigued, but answers most of them for this to feel like a well-rounded, finished story. But mentioning any details of the plot could spoil your fun and, trust me, I want you guys to enjoy this as much as I did! Simply know that the ending, while maybe a teeny bit rushed compared to the build-up, absolutely nailed it. We find out some things about Alex’s past, about ghosts in general and some in particular, about secrets hidden even deeper than you expect, and about how this magical world even works. But there are still so many things to discover, there’s so much more exploring I want to do in this world! This book just came out a month ago, so I know it’ll be quite a wait until we get the next one. But I am already excited, and if the sequel is anything as good as this one, I hope Bardugo turns this into a long, long series.
MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent!