Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo
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 was probably my most anticipated book of the year. For the record, here are some of my favourite things in literature: Leigh Bardugo books. Secret societies. Dark academia. Strong worldbuilding and a vivid setting. Characters that feel real. Ninth House has all of it, a tale of dark academia and privilege at the cost of others and murder and violence, all taking place at one of the most prestigious universities in the world.
To be completely honest, I knew almost nothing about Yale’s secret societies, and I thought they Weren’t A Real Thing until a few days before this book came out and I popped on a podcast about secret societies and found myself revisiting them in Ninth House. Yale’s secret societies–their names, their mystery–lend themselves so easily to magic, and Leigh Bardugo did such an amazing job of creating a world of mystery and magic around Yale. The eponymous “Ninth House” refers to Lethe, which regulates the rituals and magic practised by the other eight societies of Yale. Through Lethe, we get to see all the workings of the societies firsthand; we’re not just limited to one.
Our protagonist is Alex “Galaxy” Stern, whom I love, despite me judging the heck out of the name “Galaxy” (and it even makes sense in context, okay). Leigh Bardugo does an amazing job of writing morally grey characters who do awful, violent things, but making you root for them anyway despite it–or, I find, precisely because of it, because her villains are so morally despicable that you want to see them suffer. Alex is twenty years old, a former drug addict, and she can see ghosts–a trait which gave her the opportunity to attend Yale. I found Alex such a fascinating character–she’s ruthless, sarcastic, and oftentimes vengeful, and she carries so much trauma and hurt around with her. She’s a survivor, and it’s evident in the way Bardugo writes her. I love Bardugo’s narrative voice. It definitely reads a lot different from Six of Crows, but her writing is still gorgeous.
On the other hand, we have Daniel “Darlington” Arlington, Alex’s studious Lethe mentor, who struck me as a softer nerdy type. I also loved Dawes, because she was so soft in a world where it’s hard to be soft.
At the core of it, Ninth House is a murder mystery entangled with exploring the privilege and rot of the rich and powerful. The purpose of the societies is to assist those in power, and it’s something that Alex becomes more disgusted with as the book goes on. There’s a lot of discussion about topics that are very relevant to the political sphere today concerning those in power, and the book doesn’t give any sympathy to those who abuse that power, but rather condemns it. It’s something you don’t really see discussed in a lot of dark academia books, where the protagonists are part of the elite; here, Alex is on the periphery, with no wish to join the ranks of those in power.
For those who are going into Ninth House thinking it’s dark: it is, but not horrifyingly so; this isn’t a book I’d hesitate to recommend due to content. I wouldn’t say it’s that much darker than a lot of the books we call “dark academia,” but it does have a lot of intense scenes of gore and sexual assault that can be jarring, so if you want to read it please be aware. I’m also glad that this is one of the few books in the “dark academia” genre that do the bare minimum of having a few characters of color. Alex is mixed, half-Latina, and it factors in very well to the plot and her character and how it affects her place within Yale.
I found Leigh Bardugo’s adult debut to be absolutely captivating and engrossing, a world different from any of her young adult novels but just as good. Fans of The Secret History or If We Were Villians will definitely enjoy this one. Ninth House takes all the themes of dark academia and weaves them into a world rife with magic and poison that readers will be inexorably drawn into.
content warnings | child sexual assault, gore, drug abuse, use of date rape drugs, violence, murder
representation | mixed latina main character, ptsd
have you read or do you plan to read ninth house?