After realising that long-awaited Hell Bent, second book of the Alex Stern series, had now been published, I decided to re-read (re-listen) the first volume before diving into its continuation. I remember enjoying Ninth House the first time I read it, even though with some reservations, and going back to its horrifically magical Yale proved to be an intense but captivating journey.
Title: Ninth House
Author: Leigh Bardugo
Publisher: Flatiron Books
Publication Date: 8 October 2019
Genre: Urban Fantasy – Dark Academia
Standalone or Series: First book of the Alex Stern series
Synopsis: Galaxy “Alex” Stern is a high school drop out, a former addict and the only survivor of a gruesome murder scene: indeed, not your average Yale student. She has a special gift, however, that is to say the natural ability to see ghosts. In her life, such a talent has been a curse more than anything else: as it made her unable to share her experiences and even seek help for her traumas, which were unbelievable for everyone else, her supernatural sight was actually a major cause of her marginalisation. Her unusual ability is, however, of the utmost interest for Lethe House, a secretive group that monitors the activities of all other occult societies of Yale – which are based on real student groups, such as Skull and Bones and Scroll and Key, except here they have actual magic powers on the top of their arcane-sounding names. Alex is offered a scholarship to Yale – and the chance of a better life – as long as she uses her power to help Lethe House with their task. So Alex is thrown into an entirely unfamiliar environment, made acquainted with unsettling magic secrets, and soon enough involved in yet another escalation of dramatic events.
Analysis: Written in third person subjective, the novel alternately follows the point of view of its two main characters: the troubled Alex Stern herself, and her posh but no less tormented mentor Daniel Arlington (also known as Darlington). Their perspectives, not unlike their personalities, are a mirror to each other, and allow us to have a more complete understanding not just of the setting, but of each protagonist’s reasons and shortcomings as well. While Bardugo’s prose is clear and approachable as usual, its register varies to adjust to each character’s personal style: while Alex has a distinctevly casual and even crude speech pattern, Darligton is much more casual and sophisticated, as befits its education, and self image. As for the plot, Bardugo here employs a complex, nonlinear structure, that throws us in medias res, and then moves back and forth to gradually reveal what’s actually happening: a choice that may even come across as disorienting at first, but that is nevertheless effective in creating suspense and mystery, while also somehow mirroring Alex’s own bewilderment.
The story is set in Yale, in a world similar to our own except for the presence of magical powers and occult circles that (at least as far as I can tell) do not exist in real life. The magic system is never described systematically, and we largely learn about it through Alex’s confused eyes – which explains why we only get a fragmented, partial understanding of its workings, even though it doesn’t entirely erase the impression that new powers were made up as the plot required.
The novel fits well into the dark academia aesthetic, with a critical and disenchanted twist: much more prominent than the fascination for forbidden knowledge is, in fact, its lucid, even cynical gaze on power and privilege. Indeed, in this universe magic is nothing dreamy or liberating, its depiction is no means for escapism. Quite the opposite: it is steadily in the hands of the most powerful élites, used as a tool for their purposes, in a way that closely mirrors real patterns of oppression. For some perspective: one of the first scenes has Alex (and us) witness to a Skull and Bones ceremony, in which the future of the stock markets is divined from the bowels a mentally ill vagrant – whom they have no qualms narcotizing and cutting open with little concern for consequences.
One of the main appeal of the novel is in its main characters: both Alex and Darlington are, each in their own way, deeply flawed people, and yet at the same time they’re very easy to understand and get attached to; even when their experiences are too extreme to be immediately relatable, their motives are understandable, eliciting our sympathy even though not necessarily our approval. They (and especially Alex) share a trait with most of Bardugo’s characters, that is to say some sort of inner reticence, a tendency to hide from the reader a significant part of their knowledge and thought process; I do not always approve of such a stylistic choice, that when overdone may come across as a cheap trick to build dramatic effect, however I found it quite fitting in Alex’s case: given her tragic past and her impossible attempt to build an enitrely new life, it is not surprising that she’s suppressing some of her thoughts, trying to shield herself from her worst memories.
Due to its peculiar structure, the story is somehow hard to get into at first, but as soon as we get our bearings it proves to be really compelling. It deals with a number of gruesome and disturbing topics that may not be for everyone’s sensibilities, but that fit the theme of the book, using supernatural horrors as a very transparent metaphor for real-world issues.
The weakest spot of the novel is its conclusion: while the solution of the entire mystery fits thematically,
Conclusions & Recommendations: Ninth House is perhaps not a perfect novel, but it manages to be both insightful and entertaining. I recommend it to those of you who love dark academia for its thought provoking criticism, more than for the charm of its atmosphere – as long as you’re not put off by descriptions of gruesome scenes and horrific of abuse.
Content Warning: Rape – Murder – Drug Abuse – Child Abuse – Graphic Violence