Title: Ninth House
Author: Leigh Bardugo
Format: Hardback – 458 pages
“Alex smiled then, a small thing, a glimpse of the girl lurking inside her, a happy, less haunted girl. 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. That was what Lethe had done for him. Maybe it could do that for Alex as well.” – Ninth House
Hello Hello! How are you?
I went into this one without knowing much about the plot, I only knew that the main character was called Alex Stern and that the story was set at Yale University. I heard Kayla from BooksandLala talk about this book on YouTube, we have quite similar tastes so when I saw that this was one of my January picks for my Goodreads Book Club, I jumped on the opportunity to read it.
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.
Ninth House is the first book in the new adult Fantasy/Occult Fiction/Thriller series centred around (Galaxy) Alex Stern, a young woman who ends up at Yale University, on a full scholarship, and in Lethe, a secret society at the heart of New Haven. We learn fairly quickly on that she was chosen to keep an eye on the eight Houses of the Veil: Skull & Bones, Scroll & Key, Book & Snake, Wolf’s Head, Manuscript, Aurelian, St Elmo’s and Berzelius. Alex Stern, although a drop-out from high-school who got caught up with drugs and was the only survivor of a homicide, she is much more than just that. She can see ghosts, also known as “grays”. This book is written with two points of view, first Alex’s and then Darlington’s. There are also quite a lot of flashbacks and the whole book shifts from present-day, back into the past, and back again.
Ninth House is set in New Haven, Connecticut (U.S.). The story focuses on Yale University/the campus, the book also takes place in the Lethe safe houses, around the town, at Darlington’s house, etc. I really liked how the characters moved around the city and different places on the campus because it seemed that we were going with them. The map at the start of the novel really helps to give context and orientation during the reading experience. The setting is a vital element in this book and the reader’s attention is drawn to the descriptions of the places in such a way that you can’t help but realise how symbolic the town is.
During the story, Alex visits different buildings belonging to the eight Houses of the Veil, each described in a way that makes them seem alive. This book is VERY descriptive, and it could put you off if you don’t like very flowery writing or too much information – sometimes it did become a bit overwhelming and it felt like the author was info-dumping us – but looking back on the book now, I think that it was really important to gather all this information because it has set the scene for the rest of the series.
I’m not going to talk about every single character in the book, but I am going to focus on a few that I really enjoyed reading about through both POVs.
Galaxy “Alex” Stern: She is the main character of Ninth House and Darlington’s Dante (his understudy). Right from the start, I got the feeling that Alex was a very strong character. She is portrayed as a vulnerable, skinny, a dropout and somewhat of a social recluse who got into drugs from a very young age, but she is witty, strong-willed and determined. We learn a lot about Alex through the multiple flashbacks and by the end of the book, I felt like I had really gotten to know her. I loved how real and living she felt to me, by her actions, words and also by her personality.
Daniel Arlington “Darlington”: He is Alex’s Virgil (her mentor). Although less present than Alex, Darlington appears as quite a strong character also. He comes across as a very gentlemanly figure, always striving to do what is right, what is expected of him. At the start, I had the feeling that he was quite a snobbish kind of character, but as the plot progressed, that “impression” slowly fell away to reveal a character who can be just as vulnerable and sensitive as Alex, especially where his family is concerned.
Pamela Dawes – Oculus: Dawes is, in essence, the “mother” who looks after things when they go wrong. She seems like quite a shut-in, solitary and silent type of character, but don’t be fooled, this one has balls too. I first didn’t really like Pamela, but as the story progressed it seems as if her guard came down and she let us in.
The “Grays”: There are a LOT of grays in this story, they are ghosts that haven’t passed over when they have died and are trapped on this side of the Veil, pulled towards humans because they seek anything that reminds them of being alive. Alex has the power to see Grays, whereas other people in the various Houses have to take Hiram’s Bullet, a dangerous potion to enable them to see through the Veil and get a glimpse of the dead. The main “Gray” of the story is the Bridegroom, rumoured to have murdered his fiancée Daisy and who spends his time roaming around the city, looking ominous.
Other characters: Turner, the detective who helps the Houses with matters concerning the police, also known as “Centurion”; Professor Belbalm an old lady who wants to help Alex through her academic struggles, and Elliot Sandow, the dean of the university and the mediator between the Houses and the Faculty. Although they all seem unimportant at the beginning of the novel, they end up being integral parts of the plotline and I really enjoyed watching their personalities develop.
Before I give you my thoughts on this book, I first want to touch on the main themes discussed in it.
Violence, drugs, and gore: From the get-go, we get quite a few glimpses of violent scenes, most of the time quite explicit in their descriptions. There is a lot of violence, drug abuse, domestic abuse, and gore. We see a lot of blood, we witness a drug overdose and there are some fight scenes. I feel like most of these scenes reflect Alex’s life before she arrived at Yale, although, as the book progresses, these themes slowly slip back as if trying to drag Alex under. You can tell that Alex has never been treated well and that she has been conditioned by the behaviours she has witnessed and I think that this proves just to what extent she embodies “the fighter” and “the survivor”.
Ghosts: I’ve already touched on this, but this book is FULL of ghosts. I didn’t find any of the scenes with ghosts spooky or scary, but I really appreciated the slightly dark and gloomy atmosphere it gave the story. To go with this, there is also a lot of magic, of occult themes, spells, a quite a lot of literary references to various poems or authors, and I really enjoyed seeing a lot of nice quotes used as “words against the dead” as well.
Secret societies: This was actually the selling point of this book for me, I’m a sucker for a good secret society, and I love the overall feeling of debauchery and concealment. I just adored how the different Houses had this aura around them, a sort of dark atmosphere that enveloped anything to do with them. I really enjoyed reading about their history and about the different types of magic from each House, it really helped to set the tone.
Mysteries: There are three mysteries in this book and they are each vital to the actual plot, even though you only realise this right at the end. 1. How did Alex survive the “homicide”? 2. What does the Bridegroom want? 3. What happened to Tara? And that’s all I’m going to say, you’ll have to find out for yourselves ahah! Side note though, I really enjoyed how the mysteries fit seamlessly with the rest of the plot, at the start I felt like it was all a bit irrelevant, but actually it’s not, and I’m sure you’re going to love it and be like “WHAT just happened?”, just like I was.
Alex: I know she is a character, but through her flashbacks and her point of view, we actually learn a lot about what is going on and we get to see her evolve and grow. She starts out as a really dark and vulnerable young girl, she seems really closed in and resigned, but as the story moves forward, we get to see a side of Alex that shocks, but at the same time shows who she really is. I really enjoyed reading her as a whole, she is very witty, she always has a snide remark or backlash to aim at people.
MY THOUGHTS AND RATING
I really, really enjoyed this book and I rated it 4 stars. I loved reading this book because of all of the different themes that are interwoven to make up the enormous plot, to go with the enormous plot twist, that I NEVER saw coming.
The reason I am giving it 4 stars is because I struggled with this one on a few points: the fact that it is so descriptive by nature makes it quite slow-paced at the start and a lot of things are left unsaid until the end, I know that it is suspense and it’s meant to be hidden until the ending, but a few times I just wondered where the book was going and when it was going to end. Now that I’ve read it though, I’ve realised that I can’t stop thinking about this story. I love how real Alex seems, a lot of the time in books, we can identify to the main character(s) because of personality traits and feelings, but because Alex is so different from any other character I’ve ever read about, she becomes more “physical” throughout the story.
I also got the impression at times that the book was quite “cloudy” or “foggy”, and I think that this is due to the flashbacks and shifts of points of view. Not until about 3/4s of the book did I feel like it was set in the “present” and that things were actually happening as I was reading them, and I think that it took away a bit from my experience because it ended up distancing me from the story and breaking my focus on the plotline.
Overall, I really enjoyed reading this book, I found it slow and a tad bit too “info-dumpy” at the start, but as it progressed, that feeling of “bogging” down was lost and the story really came into its own. I’m really happy to have read this book and recommend it to anyone who likes stories with ghosts, mysteries, secret societies, and strong characters. They are themes I really like reading about, however, it is important to keep in mind that it is an adult book, and it is by nature dark and violent. If that doesn’t bother you, then this is the book for you!
That’s all for now, I hope you enjoyed reading my review!