Ninth House, by Leigh Bardugo
Having read Leigh Bardugo’s books Six of Crows and Crooked Kingdom, I was well aware of her writing acumen. When I heard that she was stepping away from YA fiction to pen an “adult” novel, I was in, even before Ninth House started racking up the accolades. Still, I was a little nervous when I started the book – from the onset it was so much darker than I had anticipated. Admittedly I am a squeamish reader, but I trusted her vision – and was again rewarded.
Recapping. Alex Stern had led a rough life leading up to her freshman year at Yale University. Homeless and aimless, she had been living on the rough fringes of poverty, drugs and apathy when she was caught up in a brutal violence that took from her not only her best friend, but those who had been her pseudo-family. Yet even as she laid in a hospital bed, a mysterious benefactor offered her the chance start over – a free ride to New Haven’s elite university. The catch? She would be working with an arcane organization that monitors Yale’s secret societies – eight old and powerful houses, each honing magical knowledge for the benefit of powerful alumni. The offer was made to her because of something she thought she had kept secret: Alex could not just intuit but actually see ghosts.
When a town girl shows up dead on the university campus, the finger of the law quickly points to her jealous boyfriend. But something in the case doesn’t sit right with Alex, and the more she digs – despite being told to leave the investigation alone – the more she is convinced that the murder is connected to one, if not more, of the secret societies that have shown already to be less than discerning about their use of dark magic. Fumbling along without the guidance of her upperclassman mentor, Darlington, Alex finds herself drawn into an ever widening plot of deceit and violence.
Personally, I found Alex Stern to be an incredibly compelling lead character. Like Kaz Brekker in Ms Bardugo’s Six of Crows duology, Alex appears at the onset to be strong and capable, quick witted and abrupt, but further reading finds that to be a desperate drive to hide how broken and vulnerable she really is. Alex is constantly is running to catch up, or ready to turn tail and run from conflict, off balance, unsure and out of her element. But she is more intelligent than her sullen appearance lets on, and also desperately wants to prove herself, more to her own bruised spirit than to anyone else – except maybe Darlington. His being a consummate gentleman along with a wicked wit gives Alex a guiderope to hold on to. Her grief and guilt at his sudden and horrifying disappearance, however, galvanizes her to learn and exploit all that lays before her to prove herself as she waits for his return – if she doesn’t get killed, first.
Ninth House lives up to the hype. The mystery at the heart of the story may be the weakest part, but honestly, I didn’t care because the characters – not only Alex, but the secondary and supporting cast around her – are so keen and rich. And at times, terrifying. The writing is swift, and witty, and imaginative, even when it deals with tropes that have been utilized in supernatural literature ad nauseum.
I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book, and look forward to the next one in the series. I cannot recommend it highly enough.