Inverarity (inverarity) wrote,
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Book Review: Ninth House, by Leigh Bardugo

Yale's secret societies reimagined as Hogwarts Houses but with rape and murder.


Ninth House

Flatiron Books, 2019, 459 pages



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. In fact, by age 20, 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 prestigious universities on a full ride. What’s the catch, and why her?

Still searching for answers, Alex arrives in New Haven tasked by her mysterious benefactors with monitoring the activities of Yale’s secret societies. Their eight windowless "tombs" are the well-known haunts of the rich and powerful, from high-ranking politicos to Wall Street’s biggest players. But their occult activities are more sinister and more extraordinary than any paranoid imagination might conceive. They tamper with forbidden magic. They raise the dead. And, sometimes, they prey on the living.




I approached Ninth House with some apprehension. Nowadays #metoo is a trendy label to get slapped on any book with a vaguely feminist theme. It got slapped on Circe, by Madeline Miller, which was an excellent book but was definitely not (as I saw one blurb describe it) "A #metoo for Greek mythology." Like, yes, there was rape (because Greek mythology) and for once it's the female protagonist who's centered, but stop with the lazy hashtags. Then there was Alix Harrow's Hugo-nominated The Ten Thousand Doors of January, which was a careful checkbox-ticking collection of Social Justice affirmations wrapped in an alternate worlds story. So here comes an adult fantasy/occult horror novel by an author who's more famous for her YA books which is billed as "#metoo urban fantasy at Yale" and it's all feminist and raar!, but some people say it's actually good, so....

It's actually good.

I did not know until after I finished Ninth House that all the secret societies it describes are real. Well, I had heard of Skull and Bones, which George Bush was famously a member of, but it turns out, Yale really does have a bunch of "secret" societies, and Leigh Bardugo (who is a Yale alumnus herself and was actually a member of one of the societies) used their real names and the locations of their "tombs" (clubhouse buildings) in her novel.

I'm assuming the magic rituals are fictionalized, though.

In this fantasy version of Yale, its secret societies are actually possessors of arcane knowledge, with each one specializing in a particular type of magic. So yes, all those scions of society, future political leaders, and other one-percenters whose path to wealth and fame and fortune is paved by privilege and social connections, also got a little boost from black magic. Just like you always suspected, right?

Skull and Bones are necromancers, Wolf's Head are shapeshifters (but don't call them that), Manuscript can forge binding magical contracts, etc. There are lots of references to the real-world celebrities who were actually members of these societies; the book never actually says that John Ashcroft, George Bush, Cole Porter, and Jodie Foster were sorcerers, but... y'know.

"Alex" (short for "Galaxy" because her mother was a spacy New Ager) Stern is not what you would think of as Yale material. A high school dropout with a string of drug-dealer boyfriends, petty crime and substance abuse, and most recently, the sole survivor of a gruesome multiple murder. And yet she is offered a full-ride scholarship to Yale. Why? Because she can see ghosts.

Seeing ghosts is, in fact, what drove her to drop out of school and start taking drugs. So she's not exactly thrilled to come to the ghost-haunted town of New Haven, Connecticut, and work for the uptight rich boy who recruited her. Daniel Darlington is really a secondary character, though he does get quite a few chapters of his own. He is a Yale senior and he's training Alex up to be his "Dante" for Lethe, the "Ninth House" (the major magical secret societies are the Ancient Eight). Lethe's job is basically to act as hall monitors for the other eight houses — keep them in line, make sure they aren't breaking too many rules, mixing love potions in the punch at frat parties, murdering hobos in ritual sacrifices...

As you might expect, much of the story revolves around a bunch of entitled rich kids doing what you'd expect entitled rich kids to do with magical powers. It does have a bit of The Magicians vibe, but here, the main character is an outsider. In theory, she has the backing of Lethe, the police, and the Yale administration (a select few of whom are privy to the truth of the secret societies). In practice, Lethe is funded by the societies it polices, who only agreed to the policing as part of a deal made with the university decades ago after one too many rituals gone awry, so you get the predictable conflicts of interest and unloved jannies with only as much enforcement power as they're allowed.

Alex just wants to take advantage of her opportunity to get a Yale degree and leave, but then Darlington goes missing, a townie girl winds up dead, and one of New Haven's oldest ghosts just will not leave her alone. Alex gets pulled into solving what becomes multiple murder mysteries because she may not want to be a hero but she recognizes when things are fucked up.

Unsurprisingly, she turns up secrets even darker than frat boys playing with mind control drugs. There are of course several twists and betrayals and the plot mixes real-world privilege politics with paranormal shenanigans and a thoroughly and pleasingly unexpected villain.

So, despite my skepticism going in, I liked it a lot. I liked it enough that I was pleased to learn that the author intends a sequel and possibly a series. Alex is kind of a bitch, but she's had a rough life and she's earned her bitchiness. She still sees ghosts and now she's the HBIC of Lethe House. Raar!






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