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.
Content/trigger warnings: rape, rape of a child (graphic description), statutory rape (graphic description), sexual assault, sexual assault filmed, murder, death, gore, self-harm, cult rituals, bloodletting, discussion of suicide, blackmail, forced eating of human faeces (done to a serial rapist), racism, drug use, magical drug used for date rape, overdosing, physical abuse.
Thank you to Hachette Australia for providing a copy of this novel in exchange for an honest review.
“All you children playing with fire, looking surprised when the house burns down.”
Ninth House is the highly anticipated adult debut from internationally bestselling author Leigh Bardugo, and lets just say its anticipated for a reason. This novel has everything I’ve ever loved in books: dark academia, secret societies, and women fighting back against a system designed against them. This book is also about surviving abuse and trauma, and finding your voice and power again after it was taken from you.
Alex Stern is a freshman at Yale and is indoctrinated into Lethe House, a secret group that is tasked with ensuring the eight secret societies at Yale follow the rules. These secret societies are all-powerful and have featured prominent politicians and celebrities from American history — if you are a member of one of these Houses, you will undoubtedly rise to a position of power where you can shape the world to your desire.
But Alex isn’t rich or powerful — she’s a survivor who has lived through abuse, drug lords, and murder. She is invited to Yale on a full scholarship because she can see the Grays (ghosts) a very rare skill in this world of forbidden magic. And Alex is going to use these skills to make a better life for herself, one she never thought she was worthy of before.
Ninth House is narrated through two perspectives: Alex’s and a man named Daniel Arlington’s (Darlington). The book goes back and forth between two timelines as well, with Alex narrating the present day in spring dealing with a murder on campus and worrying about Darlington who has mysteriously vanished, while Darlington narrates the previous winter when Alex first arrived at Yale.
“I’m pretty sure when my mother was talking about the devil, she had you in mind.”
Alex is one of the best characters I’ve read this year. I simply adore her: her strength, her ambition, her “no-fucks given” attitude. When we’re first introduced to Alex, she’s only a fraction of the person she used to be and that’s because she’s trying to hide the real her: she’s trying to be someone else, someone who deserves to be at Yale, someone who doesn’t disrupt the status quo in order to aspire to that future she so desperately wants. But as the story develops and Alex becomes more and more embroiled in murder mysteries and an insidious rape culture on campus, the real Alex begins to shine through once again: an Alex that is angry at the unfairness of the world and who is about to bring down the systems of privilege around her.
I also loved Darlington. He is such a gentleman and someone who sees the best in the world — or perhaps its more accurate to say that he sees what he wants to see of the world. Like Alex, he has had a difficult time growing up, but in a completely different way, but he too has had to claw his way to Yale and continually tries to prove he belongs there. His disappearance in Alex’s chapters are so intriguing and I think all readers will be shocked — absolutely shocked — when they find out what happens to him. I would also like to say I’m a fervent Alex/Darlington shipper, thanks!
I will be honest, this book takes a good 120 pages or so before you’re invested in the story. That did worry me for quite a while, because it felt like nothing was happening, plot-wise. But once the novel sets up the initial story and the world-building, the plot flows perfectly from then on out and you’re left on the edge of your seat, just trying to hold on. I absolutely loved the unique plot and world-building, featuring ghosts, demons, blood magic, and horrible rich people controlling the world. I think its safe to say you’ve never read a book quite like this one before.
What impressed me most about Ninth House, however, was the discussion about privilege and power. Bardugo sheds light on institutional privilege and abuse that has been passed down from generation to generation of rich, white college men, and how this unchecked entitlement can completely destroy the lives of women (particularly women of colour), poor people, and immigrants. I’m so thankful that Bardugo discusses these important issues in this novel. She does so in a very dark way, but this is a reality for so many people and are conversations that need to be had no matter how uncomfortable they might make some.
There were always excuses for why girls died.
Ninth House is easily one of the best books I’ve read this year. Like the publisher and Bardugo have explained multiple times, this is a very dark book and unlike anything she has written previously. And I so appreciate that: first, because I love seeing an author write outside their comfort zone or what they’re known most for; and secondly, because the issues Bardugo raises in this book are so very important. Pair that with outstanding world-building and fascinating, badass characters, and you’ve got a new favourite book on your hands! Please get yourselves a copy of Ninth House, out today!