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.
I picked up this book with a mad feeling of hope. The premise promised me an entry to what I now consider to be my favorite genre: novels that initiate their readers into a secret club, hidden from everyone else the way an oyster conceals the pearl at its heart, which is probably what every good novel should do. I couldn’t imagine anyone in a better position to deliver this story than the author I believe to be one of the finest in her field.
But what a slim hope to rest my heart upon.
In Leigh Bardugo’s first offering to the adult genre, Yale University wears claws hidden in a velvet glove. Here where magic didn’t require skill so much as a steady lavishing of grotesqueries, and men in power used their loyalty to underground societies to further their own ambitions, eager to commit their weight to the great lever and move the world—without counting the cost.
Peering down from a lofty chair at the rest of the societies was House of Lethe, standing guard to ensure that their unwholesome affairs won’t tip them into a whirling chaos that could eat them whole. To this end, Lethe needed someone who could see ghosts. Galaxy Stern trailed an army of ghosts that only she could see. They were a matchmaker’s dream.
Alex is recruited with all the boorish self-interest of a rich man purchasing a racehorse, and given a chance to scrub her past clean and start over. Alex throws herself at the offer, even when ordered to follow at Darlington’s heels like an obedient hound. Daniel “Darlington” Arlington is as inerrant in his presence as he is with his duty to Lethe. Alex’s lies are adequate, but Darlington’s gaze, fastened on her, is a mirror that granted a ruinous glimpse of herself, and it spoke of abandon and fearlessness, a person dangerously unmoored from their own future. Someone with a secret.
Now there is a fog creeping along at their heels, swallowing their footsteps and erasing their evidence, and when a girl winds up dead and Darlington melts to nothing before Alex’s eyes, the wrongness of what they’re doing hangs like gun smoke in the air. Darlington believed they were safe in Lethe—they were the shepherds, after all—but Lethe only bestows the kind of protection that weighs and measures before it finds you worthy. The societies will always have a comfortable veil of money between them and the rest of the world, but Alex knows that when the deal she made falls through she would be shuffled to the side, abandoned, cut off and once again powerless. Luckily, survival is a blade she’d honed to a hair’s edge, and Alex is well versed in the art of dodging and scheming up until the very moment of flipping the car and crashing in flames.
“Mors irrumat omnia. Death fucks us all.”
It sounds like a deliriously good premise, doesn’t it? While reading, I kept asking myself, how it could be that I was so doggedly not enjoying a book that was so perfectly calculated to be my literary ideal, and here, I think, is the answer.
Bardugo has always been good at fully bringing to life a place most couldn’t pretend to know, and has already displayed a great gift for plot in her YA Grisha-verse books, but I was left craving the vividly and mordantly splendid story lines we know she’s capable of delivering. Despite its flashes of poignant beauty—there is a recurrent scene from this book that surfaces in my mind again and again, like an obsessive undercurrent in a dream: Alex standing, like a temple icon to an evil goddess, (“night ebbed and flowed around her in a cape of glittering stars”), and Darlington with a sword in his back that felled him to his knees, to her mercy, his plea of “Choose me” a frantic, unspoken chant—Ninth House’s blend of the mundane and the magical did not tip far enough to the latter for me.
Bardugo favors detailed explication over keeping a steady pace, and it’s problematic when the flow of the story is hampered by its slow build and lack of major plot movement. Some naïve corner of my mind kept holding its breath in expectation, but my initial excitement soon slipped away, and hope fell shortly on its heels. Though the back-and-forth structure eventually takes on a deeper resonance as more secrets are gradually unearthed, I’m not sure it’s enough to forgive.
“We all have spaces we keep blank.”
I was aware of the hefty list of trigger warnings before I picked up this novel, and indeed, Ninth House is not for the squeamish. Then again, it’s hard to imagine anyone whose mind won’t recoil from it, whose soul won’t curdle reading it. That said, it isn’t the grimmest, or bleakest book I’ve ever read. In fact, Bardugo sometimes tries too hard for big, dramatic horror, and the violence comes off as gratuitous, her ghosts sometimes too chain-rattling to believe. I was deeply (and, as it turned out, accurately) concerned that some themes would not be handled with enough conscious sensibility woven into the fabric of the story, and would instead be dolloped on top to serve for shock value. Ninth House is about all kinds of trauma, yet I found that the consequences of such a monumental thing are barely brushed upon. The novel is rife with flashbacks, seen through Alex’s eyes as she passively witnesses the horrifying events of her past, but her trauma-suppressed memories seemingly only resurface whenever it’s convenient for the plot, and without much of a statement being made besides. And that occasionally struck a sour note.
Ultimately, this is the novel’s biggest misstep for me—that it curiously avoids fully engaging with the meat of its themes. At points in Ninth House, it seems that Bardugo is setting herself up to make a deep point about privilege and power—mystical, emotional, institutional—and what happens when it’s abused, even in small, quiet ways, but nothing satisfying comes of that tantalizing notion. And though the driving force of the narrative is a classic whodunit, with Bardugo structuring the book like a detective yarn of sorts, I don’t know whether it works like a crime novel; Alex is sharp, frail yet crafty, but the narrative may hand her a few too many gifts.
The emotional register of Ninth House, too, is of a different order from either of Bardugo’s previous works—for me, at least. I don’t feel like the novel managed to pierce the veil that separates the reader from the human puzzle pieces on the page. Alex is a difficult character to like—no matter how much I tried to put my arms around her, I might as well have embraced an oak. I found her largely stiff and drab, one of those characters that are so passive and colorless that you wonder why all these intriguing people don’t ditch them and hang out with each other instead. There’s a roaring vitality to her that’s always just beneath the surface, though, and I wanted to poke at it until it gave way to something more.
Despite having considerably less page-time, Darlington’s character, on the other hand, manages to shine amid a constant barrage of wonders and grotesqueries. There’s an embodied presence to him, depth and information—and it kept me riveted throughout.
Darlington lived with an endless commotion inside, and the part of him that sought danger, like an ember sought air, fit in with Lethe like a bolt sliding into place. He was the boy who was permanently discontent with the ordinary and convinced of the existence of the extraordinary. The boy who hasn’t yet lost the unbruised part of himself that believed in magic with a fervor that strayed perilously close to mortification. As gruesomely and cruelly as the game was stacked against him, Darlington always played it with a kind of mystic joy, even when it convulsed all around him. A saner person who is less prone to self-destruction would not parse the idea of beauty being attributed to anyone or anything consigned to such a horrid world, yet that world is always embellished in Darlington’s mind. Why? Because Darlington was relieved to have done it, to finally be inside the magic instead of looking at it through a window—even when that magic was ready to claw and tore at him. That… struck a deep chord within me.
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. That was what Lethe had done for him. Maybe it could do that for Alex as well.
Overall, I think Ninth House inches in many intriguing directions, but unfortunately, it’s not enough to enliven such a tepid outing. But I’ll be reading the next installment just for more glimpses of Darlington.
Trigger Warnings (courtesy of Roe): rape of a child, sexual assault under influence of a magical drug, drowning, heavy violence, gore, drug addiction, overdosing, death, suicide, blackmail, self-harm, and forced consumption of human waste.
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