Ninth House (Alex Stern #1)
by Leigh Bardugo
Published October 8, 2019, by Flatiron Books
Secret societies have fascinated human imagination since we came up with the idea of them ages ago. Whether they are ancient Roman mystery cults or the mythical Illuminati of modern times, such groups attract stories like a light attracts moths. In her adult fantasy debut, Ninth House, bestselling author Leigh Bardugo (known more for her young adult fantasy series, the Grisha trilogy and its follow up, the Six of Crows duology) returns to her alma mater, Yale, to tell the story of a collection of secret societies that have access to real magic– assuming they have the nerve and a moral code gray enough to handle the realities of that magic: futures are told in the entrails of living people; mystical drugs turn people into slavish servants devoid of free will; spirits can be summoned from the land of the dead to act as messengers. Or as assassins.
Into this world walks Alex Stern, a high school dropout and former drug runner with more than a few secrets of her own. After she is found nearly dead from an overdose in the midst of a murder scene, a man from Yale shows up in Alex’s hospital room to offer her a deal: if she accepts she gets a full scholarship to Yale, but there are conditions to this chance and she won’t know the scale of those conditions unless she comes to New Haven. Once there, there’s no turning back.
Though she has a guide to help her acclimate to House Lethe, one of the nine secret societies whose members include some of the wealthiest and most powerful people in the country, Alex chafes at her responsibilities as Dante of House Lethe. Her role is to ensure that the other eight houses do not overstep their boundaries, break the rules, or expose their magic to the uninitiated. These responsibilities are burden enough, given that the people she is working with are, almost to a one, privileged and self-absorbed young people who think that shopping at Ikea is slumming it. Academically, Alex can barely keep up with them, but when a murder occurs near campus, Alex’s strange gifts and hard-won street smarts are crucial to finding out if a member of one of the nine houses is responsible for the young woman’s death. The more Alex investigates, though, the more entangled she gets in the affairs of the houses. And what she discovers could spell more than just death for her and those she cares about. But Alex is anything but a shrinking violet, and she presses on with her investigation, no matter the cost.
“‘You’re insane,’ said Salome, toucher her fingertips to her throat. ‘You can’t just–‘
The snake inside Alex stopped twitching and uncoiled. She curld her hand into the sleeve of her coat and slammed it through the glass case where they kept their little trinkets. Salome and Dawes shrieked. They both took another step back.
‘I know you’re used to dealing with people who can’t just, but I can, so give me the key to the temple room and let’s get square so we can forget all about this.'”
Alex is not the easiest of protagonists to like. She is an angry young woman. Angry at her mother for not telling her about her father, at an early friend who turned her back on her, at the nine houses for being so privileged, and at the world for being the way it is. But softness will not keep Alex alive in this dark underworld, and the reader who wishes to follow her must harden their own hearts a little to keep up. This isn’t to say that there is no softness. Dawes is a quirky graduate student and fellow Lethe House member whose quick wits and abilities are endearing, and even Darlington, droll and cynical as he might be, can grow on a reader.
But while Ninth House is a dark fantasy rife with horrors both real and magical, Bardugo skillfully shows that the differences between YA and adult fantasy are not demarcated by increasing degrees of sex and violence. Rather, the shift from YA to adult comes from tone and subtlety, as well as the expectation that an adult reader will understand literary or cultural references. For example, Bardugo does not spend ink explaining that Dante and Virgil are the primary characters of Dante Alighieri’s Inferno. She expects the reader to understand that reference and a host of others without her having to stop and spell it out.
Though Bardugo’s stories have always tended toward the darker side, Ninth House goes above and beyond her previous books, in part because this is an adult story not aimed at children, and in part, because Ninth House reads like Bardugo has been building up to it, honing her skills across seven previous novels and many short stories. Six of Crows, for example, features a host of flashbacks that often slow the story down as they deliver the characters’ backstories. While Ninth House features flashbacks, too, their net effect is to create a giant puzzle, providing pieces of the overarching story, fragments of Alex and Darlington’s backstories, and clues that are vital to solving the murder the story hinges upon.
Many YA fantasy writers have sought to make the leap between YA and adult, to varying degrees of success. With Ninth House, Bardugo proves she has what it takes to successfully write for both age levels. With its occult magics, terrifying ghosts, creatures from beyond this world, and a dark heroine to lead the way, both reader and Alex Stern would do well to remember the words of the original Dante before he descended into Hell: ‘Abandon hope, all ye who enter here’.