Rating: 3.75 Stars
Author: Leigh Bardugo
Series: Alex Stern, Book 1
“Mors irrumat omnia. Death fucks us all.”
I’ll be honest this is a book that sat on my TBR pile for a long, long, looooong time.
It was by an author who I’ve previously read and loved (Six of Crows more so than the other Grisha books) but an adult debut “dark” urban fantasy novel featuring occults… Yeah this book kept getting passed over for others.
And that’s not to say I don’t love dark fantasy, I do (seriously Poppy Wars and The Broken Empire series sit in places of honor on my bookshelf near my front door so I can obnoxiously show them off). But a dark fantasy from a former YA author, I was beyond skeptical.
YA, in my opinion tends to be a bit idealistic and doesn’t live in the glorious gray area that forces a reader to really internalize if an action is good or evil.
And books featuring occults… not really my thing. I’m much more of a sword, magic powers, and dragon kind of girl.
But, Leigh Bardugo produced a solid first book.
Ninth House definitely wasn’t perfect, but it was intriguing, disturbing, and an all around good read.
“All you children playing with fire, looking surprised when the house burns down”
Ninth House takes place in the modern world at Yale University and embraces the secret societies aspect of the school with a supernatural twist.
Each of the Houses of the Veil or more specifically “The Ancient Eight” societies practices occult magic with each house having their own affinity (as an interesting side note the author herself actually attended Yale and was a member of one The Ancient Eight” societies).
Our main character, Galaxy “Alex” Stern, is inducted into Lethe House. This house is responsible for monitoring the occult activities of The Ancient Eight and ensuring that the supernatural world does not bleed into the mundane (spoiler- it does).
“Peace was like any high. It couldn’t last. It was an illusion, something that could be interrupted in a moment and lost forever.”
What kills this book (and has contributed to countless DNFs on Goodreads) is the pacing and the fact that it reads more like a thriller/ horror than a fantasy (it actually has a fairly similar vibe to a Stephen King novel).
Ninth House takes a while to get going and in the meantime there is A LOT of info dumping. Which I personally didn’t mind too much, but can easily see why people called it quits and if you don’t like mystery this book really isn’t for you.
The book is told primarily in Alex’s perspective, but there are some chapters featuring Darlington’s perspective (Alex’s “Dante”, or mentor in Lethe House).
Personally I preferred Darlington’s chapters. Partially because it was just interesting seeing an outsider’s point of view on Alex and partially because it helped break up some of the bleakness of the story since his life was just a little bit less depressing.
“I let you die. To save myself, I let you die. That is the danger in keeping company with survivors.”
Alex was a very complex character (which is definitely a requirement in dark fantasy) with the requisite horrific backstory and grittiness necessary for her to survive the shitty hand she’s been given.
I found myself dreading each little window into her past as they progressively got darker and more disturbing. In fact, at one point I had to put the book down for an entire week because I got that disturbed.
While I liked the book overall, it really isn’t something that you need to read right away because it’s THAT amazing. Will I read book 2? Probably, I’m curious to see what happens next. But it isn’t one of my anticipated reads of 2021. If you like disturbing horror-like-fantasy, give this book a shot.
For a closer look and my spoilery thoughts about the book you can see the spoiler section below and to find what I’m currently reading and other book recommendations go here.
In Depth Review
This section will go over some points I touched on in my spoiler free review but, expanded more addressing some spoilers in the story.
Premise, Concepts, and Themes
The overall theme of survival is a pretty standard theme in Dark Fantasy.
At what lengths will the protagonist go to survive? Who are they willing to become?
And personally, I feel like this was handled in the book in a pretty ordinary way.
It was a standard tragic backstory (albeit with ghostly horror) needed for a dark fantasy, a withdrawn girl, and a willingness to betray and kill even those she cares for…
Not exactly groundbreaking.
But even though the theme itself is a bit overused, Bardugo’s use of ghosts and spirits being the culprit for all of Alex’s tragedies is an interesting enough way to explore this theme.
Characters and Development Arcs
Our main characters are Darlington and Alex.
And I would say of the two, Darlington was my favorite. He was just a cute dapper old soul stuck in a young body.
And the book needed a character whose backstory wasn’t so utterly soul crushing and brought some morality into such a corrupt world (at least for this book— book 2 will be interesting to see who his character becomes after everything that happened to him).
But Alex was a great protagonist. She was gritty, rough, and learned how to take control of her own life. I respected her inner steel and loved the feminist vibe Leigh Bardugo added to her.
And although her ability to see spirits isn’t exactly unique, the way it affected her life was. Seriously you can’t blame her for dropping out of school and shacking up with a complete tool, it would be too much for any teenager to handle.
And her character development was wonderful, I really enjoyed seeing how she grew as a friend and learned to rely on others.
Prose, Dialogue, and Style
This was easily one of the roughest aspects of the book.
Ninth House was a SLOW read and it really took a while to get into.
Especially in the beginning when the first 75 pages or so felt like a history book of Yale and secret societies.
And it was a book where I definitely felt like an editor could have cut out at least 50 pages of excess information or description.
World and Atmosphere
As I mentioned in my spoiler free review, an Urban Fantasy based on occult activities and secret societies isn’t really my thing.
But with that being said, the author did a good job of immersing you into that world and creating a dark oppressive atmosphere.
I also loved that she took real secret societies (including one she was apart of from her college days) and added the fantasy element there.
Which was a cool way to make the fantasy element seem real and grounded into the modern world.
Plot and Execution
When I think of Dark Fantasy I think along the lines of the Broken Empire series by Mark Lawrence or the Poppy Wars series by R.F. Kuang.
Which read like a typical fantasy novel just with protagonists who are anti heroes and are put in more fucked up situations.
Ninth House doesn’t read like that.
The book reads much more of a mystery and a Stephen King type horror than a true fantasy novel (fans of Stephen King’s Lisey’s Story or It would probably enjoy this series quite a bit).
The plot kicks off with a murder of a girl in her late teens or early twenties. And while the murder seems ordinary at first it soon begins to be clear that is linked with the occult activities that take place within the Yale secret societies.
And as someone who really is not into murder mysteries this was a bit boring at times and hard to find interesting.
As Alex is looking into the murder you learn more on how this high school dropout came to be a Yale student and why she is as guarded and haunted as she is.
Her backstory is extremely hard to read (especially that Field trip scene) but succeeds in creating a realistic antihero.
Personally, I found the moment of “who murdered the girl” to be slightly anticlimactic since I guess who the killer was from the very beginning (this reason alone is why I am not generally a fan of murder mystery books).
But the addition of Daisy’s still being alive as a parasitic type spirit was a great twist.
What does the book’s title mean within the context of the story
Since Lethe house is the house that oversees the occult activities of the Ancient Eight, it is the Ninth House.
What was the most memorable moment from this book?
Definitely the scene where Alex gets revenge on the guy who rapes her roommate. It showed a lot of growth in Alex’s character and it was really cleverly done.
What are your thoughts on the perspective(s) that drive the story?
Both Alex’s and Darlington’s perspectives were beneficial to the storyline and added a well rounded view of the world and conflict inside of it.
Especially Darlington’s, as he provided a good view on how Alex was perceived by others and what it was like for someone who needed help to see the spirit realm versus someone who could see it naturally.
Which theme do you feel the author was most interested in communicating to readers?
Like I mentioned earlier, survival. What will Alex do to survive and who is she willing to become?
Did you find the ending satisfying? Why or why not?
The ending was ok.
I had already guessed that the Dean was involved in the murder so I wasn’t really shocked to discover him admitting it to Alex.
The addition of Daisy’s parasitic spirit who wanted consume Alex was a good twist which definitely helped the ending feel a bit more interesting.
I also am glad that Darlington’s character isn’t done. It will be interesting to see what he is like in the next book.