Title: Ninth House
Author: Leigh Bardugo
Series: Alex Stern #1
Genre: Adult fantasy, thriller
Pub. Date: Oct. 8th, 2019
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, in fact, 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 to this herself, Alex arrives in New Haven tasked by her mysterious benefactors with monitoring the activities of Yale’s secret societies. These eight windowless “tombs” are well-known to be haunts of the future rich and powerful, from high-ranking politicos to Wall Street and Hollywood’s biggest players. But their occult activities are revealed to be more sinister and more extraordinary than any paranoid imagination might conceive.
As a huge Leigh Bardugo fan, my expectations were already high for this book. But since it’s her first novel outside the Grishaverse, I was also worried that I wouldn’t love her writing in a different genre. Ninth House was able to surpass all of my expectations though, as page after page exposed a part of Leigh’s talent I’d never seen before, confirming that she’s definitely my favorite author of all time.
The level of detail in this book is absolutely mind-blowing. I closed the last page and immediately felt the need to start it all over again, because Leigh surely wove hints and clues into every scene that I never picked up on. Alex is such a richly developed main character that it rivals even the way Leigh was able to develop Kaz (my favorite character ever), which is saying something. It’s also worth noting that Alex is biracial (Latinx + Jewish, ownvoices for Jewish rep), and while her sexuality is not explicitly addressed, likely bi or pan (she has romantic feelings for a girl and later, for a guy).
It’s hard to write a review without going into (spoilery) detail and taking a thousand paragraphs to explain how much I loved this book, but just take my word for it. While Six of Crows and the Grisha books are Leigh’s hallmark, her forever-playground for fun stories and lovable characters, Ninth House is clearly the book she was meant to write (at least in my opinion). Ninth House has all of the eerie, goth vibes of Leigh herself, with a spit-fire main character that you can’t help but root for. Leigh knows Yale backwards and forwards and makes sure you’ll never see that school the same way again. She also doesn’t shy away from a detailed conversation about the corruption and privilege tied up in the messy politics of the Ivy League, making a magical and dangerous story grounded firmly in the real world.
“No one realizes how much life happens between the wounds, how much it has to offer. It’s a city built to make you want to keep driving away from it.”
Leigh does not hold back in this book, which means it’s not for everyone. Major content warnings should be noted for drug and alcohol use, sexual assault (including a graphic child rape scene), self-harm (in a ritual), PTSD/grief/depression, and physical violence/gore. If you think this book may not be safe for you, it’s definitely worth looking into the details to make sure.
That being said, I also don’t think all of Leigh’s fans will love this book. I have a feeling it’s going to be a very polarizing read, as it’s not like the Grishaverse at all. It sits solidly in the adult genre, primarily in adult thriller. The pacing is a bit slower compared to YA, and the mystery (while impossibly tangled and sure to keep you on your toes) requires a lot of attention while reading, which is not everybody’s thing. But maybe if you weren’t a fan of the Grishaverse, you’ll find that you really enjoy this series instead!
As with any Leigh book, I fell helplessly in love with the characters. I used an entire pack of tabs to mark Alex’s edgy quips, and her banter with Darlington (my new book boyfriend, love of my life, including his cat who we did not get enough of). Dawes is certainly a new favorite as well! If you love wholesome, supportive female friendships this one is absolutely beautiful (I now really want someone to dress up as Alex with me so I can be Dawes for Halloween, just sayin’). Turner (a character I won’t go into much detail about for the sake of spoilers) was a bit of a surprise favorite as well, making for a pretty solid gang as the series continues.
“That was what magic did. It revealed the heart of who you’d been before life took away your belief in the possible. It gave back the world all lonely children longed for.”
Every time I thought I had the mystery solved – actually, every time Alex thought she had the mystery solved, Leigh was like “LOL watch this” and a crazy new event unfolded. While the pacing is slow, a literal sh*t ton of stuff goes down in this book, so that I flipped through it after finishing and said “oh YEAH that happened TOO,” but in the best way. I will say that at the end, things got almost too confusing to follow, but the ending wraps up enough that I think it’s still very satisfying.
If you like: dark, creepy mysteries about ghosts and other creatures of death; an old university set in the dead (pun 100% intended) of winter; unapologetic main characters that do what it takes to survive; mansions with magical libraries and fluffy cats; and a mystery that there’s absolutely no way you can solve, I think you’ll love Ninth House as much as I did. Leigh’s writing has truly never been better, and I can’t wait to see what’s in store for us next!