Reviews

Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo

Ninth House

# of Pages: 450

Time it took me to read: 9 days

# of pages a day to finish in a week: 64 pgs

Rating: 5 out of 5

Alex Stern never thought she’d be part of Yale University’s newest freshman class. She doesn’t speak three languages and she’s not set up to be the next great American novelist. She doesn’t even come from money. But what she does have is a unique kind of power that makes her desirable to Yale’s Lethe House, one of the nine highly secret and darkly alluring  societies that have existed at Yale for hundreds of years. The job of Lethe House and its initiates? Keep the other eight houses, the Ancient Eight, in check, for each one specializes in a type of magic that has the ability to make or break careers or bring countries to their knees, but without Lethe members monitoring and protecting these rituals, things can get messy fast.

Despite her natural ability to see “greys”, the shadows of those who have crossed the Veil in death, Alex quickly finds herself in too deep when a girl is murdered on the university’s campus, a girl with connections to more than one of the Ancient Eight. And even though Alex hasn’t been at Yale long, she’s learned fast that there’s no such thing as coincidences when the societies are involved. 

I’ll start out by saying that this book was not what I expected at all. I’m a huge fan of Leigh Bardugo, I think she’s one of the best writers in YA currently, her Grishaverse books grab you from the very first page. So I was very intrigued when I learned she’d branched out a bit into the adult fiction sector with what, to me, was marketed as a mystery novel set at Yale University’s campus.

As someone who tries to dip her toes outside of her comfort zone every now and again, I thought this would be a great opportunity to do so. However, it was pretty immediately apparent that this was not so much a realistic fiction mystery, but a story about dak rituals, ghosts, and magical substances that can put a person completely under the influence of the wielder. So, really, not so far off from the kind of stuff I read regularly.

I’ll start off by saying that to me, the distinction between “adult” and “young adult” is getting blurrier and blurrier these days. Really, the only thing that makes this “adult” rather than YA is the age of the characters. One might argue that there are significantly disturbing scenes, including sexual assault and heavy drug usage, that make it fitter for an adult audience, but we all know that sexual assault and drugs certainly aren’t limited to adults. These days, one can find books in the YA sphere that deal with violence, death, assault, drugs, sex, and yes, even use an unlimited amount of foul language. Because none of that is over the head of the sixteen to eighteen year olds these books are “marketed” toward. Plus, I feel as though publishers would be remiss if they failed to notice that a huge percentage of YA readers, such as myself, are well into their twenties and thirties and enjoy mature, socially relevant themes. End tangent.

Anyway, I have to admit I was expecting to be quickly pulled in head first as I usually am with a Leigh Bardugo novel, but that was not the case here. I will say, despite the fact that I gave this book the five-star rating I believe it deserves, that the story starts out slow. I found myself very bogged down with trying to remember all the names and the nicknames of the characters, as well as all of the different societies and what they specialized in. I recognized right away that everything that Leigh lays out for the reader is incredibly well researched and beautifully written, however, the story takes quite some time to pick up. Close to 200 pages in fact. Which is enough to deter many less serious, and some even more serious readers like me. Quite honestly, I’m not sure I would have made it through this book were it not for my unwavering faith in Leigh Bardugo.

Maybe that should deter me from giving this book five stars. But I don’t care, it’s my rating system and I can do what I please.

The last two hundred pages of this book were thrilling and exhilarating enough to keep me flipping the pages as quickly as I could. By that time, the reader is well acquainted with the different houses of the “Ancient Eight”, and what they do, and they begin to have more and more faith in Alex, even though by this point you’ve learned about her “storied” past and why she might not, in fact, be the kind of person you should put your faith in. But that is why I only got to liking her more and more as this book progressed.

To talk about character a bit, Alex Stern starts out as a farce of a standard YA protagonist. She can see ghosts, she had a rough childhood because they wouldn’t leave her alone, yadda yadda, seems very much like many other characters I’ve read before. But there was something about her that kept me from getting too attached to her from the start. And I think it’s because she’s really not “likable” as a person. As someone who has always been a fan of protagonists that are “likable” and “relatable”, it can take me some time to come around to some of the more gritty protagonists out there. Alex starts out as having seemingly shallow and basic motivations: she’s at Yale because she has been given the opportunity to be “normal” for the first time in her life, her mentors at Lethe House provide her with safety and security that she’s never had before, she just wants to be able to graduate and have a normal life and doesn’t really care that much about the rest of it all. This couldn’t be more opposite to her mentor at Lethe, Yale senior Daniel “Darlington” Arlington, who lives and breathes everything about Lethe, the societies, and the magic of New Haven, the town where Yale resides. However, it quickly becomes apparent that Alex must make a choice about whether she is just going to float along doing her due diligence to Lethe while trying to make it through her difficult classes and maintain relationships with roommates who know nothing about Alex’s past or her connection to Lethe, or whether she is going to dig deep and be the Lethe representative that Darlington always wanted her to be.

As I mentioned before, the enormous amount of set up required for this story, and the fact that the story jumps around in the beginning both in perspective and in timeline, means that it moves at a pretty slow pace during the first half. For most books I read, I’d argue that this means the book isn’t worth finishing. I have a whole personal philosophy that I call the “quarter” rule, where if a book hasn’t grabbed me by a quarter of the way through, it probably never will. And even if the book gets good at the end, is it worth the reader having to “suffer” through the setup? Mostly, I abide by my own rule and say no, the reader is owed some sort of gratification, something to pull them along through the setup, and that set up should only take at most a quarter of the book.

However, there are exceptions to every rule, including my own. As an avid fan of Bardugo’s, I felt that I owed it to her to read it through till the end, even if it ended up not being my cup of tea.

Oh boy, am I glad I stuck it through.

The last half of the book, the stakes get higher, and as the reader you start to formulate your theories about who murdered the dead girl found on Yale’s campus, and how it’s connected to the societies, and who has it out for Alex when she starts looking too close. Personally, I had my suspicions, which were then dashed, but then, just as you think you might be right, Bardugo throws you for another loop. The ending of this book was so well set up and supported, yet I really did NOT see it coming, which I love. When you read as much as I do, sometimes books get predictable, which doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy them, I often enjoy books I can predict the endings to, but I do love to be surprised.

My apologies, as my first review in a while, my thoughts are a bit scattered, but I think I covered just about everything that I want to say about this book. To make a long review short, though this book takes quite some time to wind up, the ending is well worth it, and though Alex Stern isn’t the most “likable” hero, she shows true grit and is realistically developed, even though that development takes more time than most of the books I read. I’m quite excited for the next one, as sequels to books like this are often much better than the first, because the setup is out of the way and all that’s left is the meat of the story, which is certainly the best part of Ninth House.

All in all, Leigh Bardugo has done it again, proving her reputation as a first-class writer, but also showing her chops as a dedicated researcher, as she uses her world-building skill to truly make the reader believe that there is a dark, magical underbelly that has always existed within Yale University and New Haven.

If you liked Ninth House, try:

Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo

The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern

All the Crooked Saints by Maggie Stiefvater

Crank by Ellen Hopkins

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