I had mixed feelings about starting Ninth House. Whilst I, like most other people, had adored Six of Crows and Crooked Kingdom, I really hadn’t gotten along with the Grisha trilogy. Like, at all. I wasn’t sure which camp Ninth House was going to fall into, although it seemed pretty clear that I was either going to love it or hate it. The end result, however, was that I really, really liked this book, so much that it made it onto my Top Ten Books of 2019 (Silver level).
Plot summary for Ninth House:
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.
Star rating: * * * * (4 stars)
I know I started this very review by bringing them up, but honestly it’s worth disregarding all Leigh Bardugo’s other books. They bear no resemblance. That isn’t a criticism, it’s just that picking up Ninth House simply because you loved Crooked Kingdom isn’t going to get you very far. Obviously the plot and the world are totally separate; we know this from the blurb. However it’s also worth bearing in mind that this is an adult book with (somewhat graphic) sex, drugs and violence. I also felt that the prose was unique as well – I enjoyed both writing styles, but you’d have a hard time convincing me that they came from the same author!
So. Alex is recruited by Lethe, a secret society within Yale which monitors and polices the supernatural rituals of all the other secret societies. I was expecting a sort of The Secret History vibe, and then a standard murdery-mystery-thriller vibe, but it’s actually sort of both of those with some demons and ghosts thrown in. It did take me a while to get in to, as it read a bit like a love letter to Yale. I didn’t need to know which street led to which plaza, or which building was constructed in which year (yes, she visited Yale for the book, I get it). When Alex’s new role became clear and we started to learn about her backstory though, I loved it.
The world-building is incredible. It’s not just that the author has created nine unique, separate societies with their own domains and personalities (although that’s impressive enough), it’s the detail included with how Lethe operates. There are rules and resources and backgrounds, and I love it. My favourite part of Harry Potter was the day-to-day classroom activities, and it’s the same here. I’d have spent the whole book happily reading about Alex’s daily tasks. There’s a special, almost autonomous library and a whole room of special artifacts to be used to make the other societies toe the line.
The overarching plot is twofold – Alex’s mentor, Darlington, has disappeared, and a girl has been murdered. Alex is convinced, but cannot prove, that this is the work of supernatural forces, unleashed by other Yale denizens. The plot was interesting enough – I cared slightly more about Darlington than the murder, but that’s okay. Both were interesting and unique, and I enjoyed both plot points.
My only complaint was that one of the graphic sex scenes was profoundly unnecessary. I don’t mind rape or violence in books, if it contributes to the book and serves a purpose. There are two rape scenes in this book – one progresses the plot and provides context, the other does not. I can’t help but think it was included mostly for shock value (and to emphasise that Ninth House is not YA) as the explanation for Alex’s backstory and motivation was already sufficient. It just felt a bit cheap.
I was happy with the ending and the grand reveal. It definitely takes a turn into full-on supernatural, but I’m okay with that. It is going to be a series, which I wasn’t aware, but it doesn’t end on a massive cliffhanger. It’s perfect really – there will be more of this amazing world and the story will continue, but we’re also not suffering from an abrupt, tacky cliffhanger. GoodReads seems to think the next book will be out around June 2021, but we’ll see.
In short, Ninth House massively exceeded all my expectations. It’s a dark, unique masterpiece that is far from being both a general thriller or a secret conspiracy book. The world-building was incredible and I loved Alex’s in-depth backstory. I’ll definitely be pre-ordering the next installment as soon as humanly possible.
Read my review of the Six of Crows duology or visit Leigh Bardugo’s website here.