Review: Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo

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, 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, Alex arrives in New Haven tasked by her mysterious benefactors with monitoring the activities of Yale’s secret societies, well-known to be haunts of the future rich and powerful. But their occult activities are revealed to be more sinister and more extraordinary than she ever imagined…

Welcome to a world of secret societies and the occult that’s perfect for fans of Deborah Harkness, Neil Gaiman, Susanna Clarke and Ben Aaronovitch.

 

“I’m pretty sure when my mother was talking about the devil, she had you in mind.”

Ninth House centres on Galaxy “Alex” Stern who is a freshman at Yale University, and is the newest member of the secret society, Lethe House, which acts as a kind of oversight committee for other secret societies of the Houses of the Veil. Alex is thrown head first into her duties as a Lethe delegate when a girl is found murdered on campus, and Alex suspects magical foul play. But as Alex gets closer to the truth, it appears someone will go to extraordinary lengths to keep her silent.

… I don’t even know where to begin, quite frankly. I’m really thrown on how I feel about Ninth House. I’m a Bardugo fan, and the book definitely felt like her usual tone, but it didn’t at the same time. So, full disclosure, I’m likely going to edit this review and possibly add-on bits as my feelings begin to settle more solidly one way.

I’ll try and iron out my thoughts and feelings as best as I can, but please be considerate that if my review is a bit incoherent here or there, it’s because that’s genuinely my feelings atm. I liked Ninth House – maybe even loved it – but I also loathed it.

Firstly, the pace of this book is one of the most excruciating I’ve read in so long. Bardugo gives far too much detail and exposition to describing street layouts and Alex walking on said streets at a given time. This kind of level of detail was so tedious I found myself frequently mentally checking out whilst reading the book.

The second thing I didn’t like was I felt the multiple threads of different stories – which actually tied together nicely in the grand scheme of things – didn’t unfold smoothly because of the exposition problems. The amount of detail given to mundane things was truly excruciating, and regrettably made the narration and development of the overall story extremely jagged – like the jostling feeling of climbing up a rollercoaster.

I ended up resorting to the audiobook to help break up the pacing issues, which thankfully worked wonders. I honestly don’t think I’d of been able to finish reading this without the audiobook.

Other than the pace and the sometimes subsequent jagged narration of events, I pretty much loved everything else to do with this book.

I felt Alex was a strong protagonist because it wasn’t hard to reason her motives for certain things she did, even before Bardugo explicitly explained them. I think that shows how well developed Alex was, because it was easy to understand how she saw the world. I also liked how steeled and grey Alex was; she wasn’t afraid of being a bad ass if needs must or doing something equally bad in the name of vengeance, and yet, she also had a good heart, and I couldn’t help admire her even more.

I think Bardugo is contributing powerful social commentary in Ninth House. She broaches on social attitudes toward female sexual assault, female credibility, class divisions and privilege, political machinations of corruption and blood money. These are bridged through the characters pasts or interactions happening on the page, and woven quite intricately into the bones and flesh of the overarching story. At times it all – especially repeated themes – felt a tad much, but I think it actually worked. It’s just the exposition of the themes on top of the over embellished descriptions of the setting spoiled it.

I enjoyed the mystery element to the story – who murdered the girl? Who wanted to shut Alex up? How was this all going to tie together? – however I found the culprit fairly obvious. I’d go so far as to say the culprit has a flashing neon light of guilt hanging over them. So, naturally, reading 400+ pages to get to know what you already know, doesn’t really help the overall disillusioned feeling.

I loved the magic of Bardugo’s story. The story is set in New Haven, which acts as a kind of magnifier for magic as the land is more reactive than other places in the world. Through Yale, there are 9 secret societies that deal in magic, each with their own particular style, with Lethe House acting as a kind of policing pillar. And in amongst all of that there are Grays (ghosts).

One of my favourite characters beyond Alex was the ghost, The Bridegroom. I loved him even more when I started listening to the audiobook, because the narrator did a lush southern accent. He was mysterious, broody and constantly lurked about trying to decide whether he wanted help or wanted to help. He became an all round likeable character the more the story progressed.

The other noteworthy thing is the imagery of certain scenes. When Bardugo decided to give memorable moments, she did not disappoint. I could see the rivers, I could see the kneeling, I could see the supernatural creatures… it was great.

Ninth House teeters between the love and loathe line, but for me, it sways just a bit more toward love. The characters are what brought Ninth House alive, and my love of the book was more or less guaranteed when I finished the book and realised how Bardugo is going to continue the story, which I’m incredibly excited for. I cannot wait for book 2! I’m really hopeful Bardugo will leave behind the over indulgence in exposition here, and continue to pave the way for developing a brilliant sequel full of potential. In the meantime, I 100% recommend listening to the audiobook, especially if you find it hard to push through physically reading the book. It saved this book for me, and I’m so thankful it did.

 

Buy It Now

Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo
Published October 2019
Genre: adult fantasy

 

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