Leigh Bardugo is well-known in the world of young adult fantasy fiction for the Grishaverse – originally a trilogy which has now expanded to include a related duology, with another series in the works. Ninth House, however, was her first adult fantasy, marketed as having a much darker tone.
“All you children playing with fire, looking surprised when the house burns down.”
Ninth House is a slow builder. It follows the story of Galaxy Stern, known as Alex, a school dropout and drug addict who ends up in hospital, the only survivor of a mysterious tragedy. In an unlikely turn of events, Alex is visited in hospital and invited to join the upcoming Freshman class at Yale. Why? Because Alex is one of the few people in the world who can see ghosts – known to those in-the-know as Grays.
This is definitely not a book for the faint-hearted. It’s dark, twisty, and full of unknown power and magic. However, it leans heavily on mystery, and that means the first 100 pages or so can seem confusing and even drag as the story begins to take shape. Leigh Bardugo’s other work is known for being fast-paced and action packed – this is the opposite, the slowest of slow burns as secrets are gradually revealed. In many ways, it reads less like a fantasy novel and more like a mystery or thriller which happens to contain the supernatural.
“Peace was like any high. It couldn’t last. It was an illusion, something that could be interrupted in a moment and lost forever.”
Alex, is a fantastic, multi-faceted character. She’s lived a tough life but come out tougher. She’s always been able to see ghosts, but as a child didn’t realise that others couldn’t see them too. Bardugo explored the way this would shape your personality brilliantly, and didn’t shy away from the negative aspects of Alex’s psyche. Alex’s reaction to Yale – filled with smart but entitled young adults who’d never known true hardship – was also an excellent examination of how those from alternative backgrounds can struggle with the education system; not because they’re not capable, but because the others there see them as an outsider and they never feel like they fit in. I wanted to wrap Alex up in blankets and give her biscuits and tea – although she’d probably see that as condescending and have some choice words in response.
Darlington, Alex’s mentor at Yale, was her polar opposite. A man from a wealthy family with a long history at Yale, he epitomised everything that she despised. However, as they got to know each other, they realised they weren’t so different after all. Darlington was an interesting character who I would have liked to have more ‘screentime’ so to speak – I’m hoping he plays a more prominent role in any sequels. (I’ve also seen several comparisons to Gansey, and I agree that they would get along like a house on fire – and possibly set a house on fire too).
Dawes, who started out as Alex and Darlington’s assistant with the occult, was possibly my favourite character. I loved her. At first glance, she appeared sweet and trusting, but she had a spectacularly deadpan sense of humour. Dawes loved rules and order but wasn’t afraid to break them when the situation called for it. She epitomised Hufflepuff in the best way. Who says Hufflepuffs can’t be the badass too?
Overall, this book starts too slowly but builds into a great story with a fascinating cast of characters. It’s extremely dark in places and explores a number of sensitive issues, but I think it manages to avoid just throwing them in for shock value. Fans of crime, mystery, and horror are likely to love this.
*Trigger warnings: This book contains graphic scenes including rape of a minor and mentions of substance abuse*
Published by Gollancz
Hardback: 8th October 2019
Paperback: 6th October 2020