TLDR: A great magical mystery with a protagonist that is accompanied by a roster of interesting characters and world building. This dark fantasy is set at Yale University, where the narrative is split between Alex, the newbie, and Darlington, her guide to the magical societies. This story deals with magic that’s grown up – a frank look at how it would exist in the modern world, residing within the hands of a privileged few.
Book: Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo
Synopsis: 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…
(Reading time: 2 mins)
I had high expectations of this book, being a fan of Six of Crows (Leigh Bardugo’s bestselling YA novel) because of the depth of character that exists there. Overall, this satisfied. The cast isn’t too large, and the motivations for each character’s actions consistently make sense. There are definite villains of the story, but it doesn’t easily split between good/bad. That’s especially true for the female characters in this book. I really enjoyed the way there was no reliance on stereotypes, instead making them all real and different.
The most surprising thing about Ninth House is that it turned out to be a mystery as well as a dark fantasy. I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect, but this is definitely a book where there’s a crime to be solved, and you find the main character’s past unravelling along with it.
The main character is Alex. She’s had an awful childhood, but has a unique power even within magical terms. She’s trying to carve a new future for herself at Yale, but keeps getting stalled by the magic, which is not a friendly thing in this book. I really enjoyed her character. She tries painfully hard to be good, and normal, even when all the odds seem stacked against her. Ultimately, it’s the uncanny within her that helps her out.
The second narrative is from the point of view of another Yale student (sidenote: is Yale Uni really in a town called ‘New Haven’? How very Dragon Age). Darlington serves as Alex’s guide, of sorts, to the magical societies. He gives us a third-person perspective of Alex, but also a better insight into the magical world, having been embedded in trying to understand it for a long time. His backstory also creates a good set-up for future books in this series.
Because the story is split between those two characters, it frequently uses time switching to tell the story. We go between past and present, which is a nice way to both build the mystery and reveal it. One thing I didn’t like, however, was that this book starts with a future-timed prologue. It’s easily skippable, which shows how unnecessary it is. Although it doesn’t contain any major spoilers, I think it ruins the effect of any plot twists in the story a little. I’d rather read up to the climax of events naturally, than know something bad is coming all the while – especially when that kind of foreshadowing is inevitable within a mystery novel.
Is it worth reading? Yes.
Similar to: The Magicians by Lev Grossman.