The is a guest post by Sarah Ash (@bookshelfpirate) and may contain minor spoilers.
Galaxy "Alex" Stern is not a typical Yale student, but she'd like to be. She's bought cheap versions of the right clothes. She makes an effort to go out with her roommates. She tries in her classes, when she's not too busy doing everything else. Unfortunately for Alex's humble ambitions, Yale recruited her to the Lethe program not for her good heart (buried under too many traumas and lots of tattoos) or her quick wits (which have helped her survive with the roughest crowds back in California) but because of her supernatural abilities.
Alex can see ghosts. This "gift" has been a torture all her life, but it's certainly handy in some situations, like if the secret societies at an Ivy League university have a habit of messing with magic and need to be kept under control. Because Yale is not all that meets the eye either in Bardugo's complex and enticing world. Between the classes and the austere traditions are attempts to communicate with the dead, orgiastic parties, and gruesome prognostications involving the guts of living victims. Lethe House, the Ninth House, keeps an eye on the arcane goings-on of Yale. It's the "oversight body for the societies' occult activities."
Essentially, the other houses, or "tombs," host their seances and try out their rituals while Lethe cleans up the mess and makes sure that no one outside the network of societies suspects a thing. There are alumni of the eight houses in powerful positions all over the world, and much of their wealth and success depends upon the details gleaned from unseen forces. But meddling with such forces tends to attract ghosts, called "Grays", and it's Alex and her supervisor Darlington's job to prevent the Grays from interfering.
All this is just cursory information. Ninth House crosses genre borders with subtle steps: it's a murder mystery, an urban fantasy, a bildungsroman, and of course dark academia. A girl from town has been murdered, and her death has suspicious links to several of the societies. A sinister ghost known as "the Bridegroom," known for murdering his fiancee before killing himself, has taken to following Alex around. Darlington, the Virgil to Alex's Dante, (code names abound in Ninth House) is not actually studying abroad in Spain; he went missing in an otherworldly accident for which Alex blames herself. The Grays are acting up, disreputable boys are getting their dirty hands on magical ways to drug girls, and between all this Alex is expected to attend her classes. There's a lot going on in Ninth House, and it takes a writerly brain as skilled as Bardugo's to keep the threads woven together into such an entertaining and suspenseful story.
Let us discuss the magic for a moment. One of the most fascinating details of The Ninth House, for me, was the unique way that "low magic," like enchanted objects and graveyard dust, balances the "high magic" of arcane rituals and supernatural study. The charmed library at Lethe's headquarters is a joy to imagine, while the prognostication ritual that opens the novel almost made me sick. (On that note, be forewarned: Leigh Bardugo spares no detail in her novel. While she may be known for her young adult books, this one is definitely not for the weak of constitution.) The mythology behind the houses and their effects on New Haven is carefully constructed and revealed in small doses, though all together it's almost enough to make one woozy with enchantment.
There's good news for those readers craving the classical quotations and obscure references that make the dark academia genre so alluring: Ninth House has esoteric details aplenty. The memento mori poetry and epitaphs Lethe members use to combat ghostly action come from ancient Greek and the Romantic poets, for example:
"...A few of the Grays peeled off, but he needed something with some damn gravitas.
'Winter will come on
And break the lower sea on the rocks
While we drink summer wine.'
Now they slowed, some covered their ears.
'See, in the white of the winter air,' he cried, 'The day hangs like a rose, it droops down to the reaching hand. Take it before it goes!' "
Quotations from Idylls Of The King appear as tattoos on the dead girl's body and connect her to at least one of the society's tombs. Manuscript House - the society of illusions - hosts an enchanted party that Alex and Darlington get to experience in full force. From an orgy in a cathedral, to a floor lower down in the tomb where pastoral mirages make Darlington feel that "they'd walked into a Maxfield Parrish painting."
As for the references to art and literature, the differences between Darlington's privileged upbringing and Alex's fraught one are illustrated through his allusions and her reactions. When first telling her about the Grays' aversions to reminders of death, he jokes "If you want to Gray-proof your room, hang a Holbein print." Alex doesn't know what he means. This is the sort of world Darlington grew up in, with his good education and obsession with arcane study. It's an obsession he could afford to indulge in, while Alex was too busy staying away from her drug dealer's violent friends to learn about the sinister magic she was encountering every day. The disparity between New Haven's city residents and the students within the enclave of Yale complicates the murder investigation, but since Alex has a foot in both worlds she takes on the task.
I've barely scratched the surface of the plots that Leigh Bardugo masterfully wrangles into her adult debut. Every character has a complicated history. Alex's past is revealed in haunting details, so realistic that I feel like I've known her for years. Darlington, too, feels like a friend, and is the character most likely to have read The Secret History. You'll be rooting for both of them as the story unfolds, though don't get too attached to any of your preconceptions – there are several surprises along the way.
If we felt the need to compare The Ninth House with other books, and I suppose we must, I would suggest thinking of Lev Grossman's The Magicians (a book I enjoyed) or a more modern flavored Tam Lin by Pamela Dean (one that fell short of my expectations). There's more magic and adventure than there is academic labor. That said, there's more detecting and psychological growth than there even is magic. I'm going to be recommending this book to fans of classic thrillers as well as to the dark academic fandom and magical realism enthusiasts.
Ninth House is a monster of its own categorization, and a very impressive one at that. The magic systems and detailed world have me craving a sequel, and there's plenty of plot left for what we can hope will be a series. I'm wildly impressed with Leigh Bardugo's foray into writing for adults. She's managed to leave me both horrified and curious, thrilled by the fantasy and longing for my own university days. Pick up Ninth House today and fall headfirst into the world waiting therein – you'll thank me for the recommendation once you manage to extract yourself from its pages.
You can find Sarah Ash over on Twitter (@bookshelfpirate) or her blog for more reviews.