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by LEIGH BARGUGO
What is it About?
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.
“Mors irrumat omnia. Death fucks us all.”
October, Halloween month, is the perfect time to read something frightening, so I decided to pick up “Ninth House”, by Leigh Bardugo.
Bardugo, of course, nominally needs no introduction. But in case those reading this review are not familiar with her work, she is a #1 New York Times bestselling author of numerous YA fantasy novels. Bardugo is probably best known for the Six of Crows Duology.
“Ninth House” is a deviation from Bardugo’s normal genre, into adult fantasy-horror. I have to say, I was not entirely sold on the book at certain junctures, but overall, the sum was much greater than the parts, and it truly grew on me, emerging as an amazing book.
The book’s protagonist, Galaxy “Alex” Stern, has a troubled past. Brought up in Los Angeles by a mother immersed in counterculture, Alex is a high-school dropout, who has run with the wrong crowd for the better part of her life.
Hanging out with undesirables, and steeped in the illicit drug world, Alex life is listless and even dangerous, due to her association with drug dealers and that ilk. Horrifically, Alex ends up almost the victim of murder, while some of those she knows are not so fortunate.
Recuperating from the incident that was nearly fatal for her, Alex obtains mysterious sponsors, who offer her a chance, despite her lack of academic success, to attend uber-prestigious Yale University, fully paid via the sponsors. She does not know why, after her tumultuous upbringing, and having barely escaped death, she has been given a chance to join an exclusive Ivy League school. But she, naturally, seizes the opportunity.
Alex quickly learns, as one might expect, nothing in life, especially admission to an institution as distinguished as Yale, is free. Due to her benefactors, she is soon drawn into the shadowy world of Lethe House.
Lethe House is the ninth of Yale’s clandestine societies – hence the eponymous “Ninth House” – and one that appears to be closely linked to the occult. All of the university’s secretive societies are populated with very wealthy, very influential, and very sinister people. But Alex soon learns, due to her own untapped abilities, she is not as out of place in Ninth House as she first thought she might have been.
What at first did not appeal to me, frankly, were two aspects. The main character, Alex, was seemingly somewhat ambivalent and dispassionate, despite all she undergoes, the way she was drawn by Bardugo.
I have no issues whatsoever with flawed or unlikable characters at all, and it was not that I did not like Alex, or that she was written to be unlikable. It was that Alex was hard to decipher as a character, initially. Of course, this is my opinion, and I considered early in the book that her somewhat dispassionate perspective was a result of trauma, and her other challenges.
As the book went on, for me it seemed that Alex evolved, and was much more engaged in her own story. The secondary characters are very well-done, and since most of them are villainous, or at least ambiguous in their morality, it makes for a very compelling book.
Second issue for me: I had heard raves about Bardugo’s prose, though I had read none of her work myself previously. The book was well written, but perhaps my own lofty expectations got the better of me. There were definitely some gems of passages, but I thought it would be more consistent throughout.
The plot is more slow burn, and this is just my jam, but I think the languorous pace may be the one thing that might be off-putting for some readers. Bardugo takes her time in setting all the pieces in place. The novel commences with a future scene. Then, multiple timelines are woven together, but eventually collide, with shocking results. But, just to emphasize this point, as some other reviews I have read point out a significant concern with the pacing, the major events are often dispersed in lethargic fashion throughout the book, except for certain points. Those craving faster pacing may abandon ship, unwilling to wait for those big occurrences.
For me, it was very much worth the payoff. I felt there was plenty of action, especially scary and shocking scenes, for readers to sink their teeth into. Murder, disappearances, and more abound, and Alex is sucked even deeper into the bizarre and perilous world of Ninth House. Things take on a mystical, and terrifying element, as black magic, haunting spirits, blended with corruption, dark secrets, and the impetus to protect the privileged at all costs from facing the consequences of their actions, become pervasive in the narrative.
What turned this book into a five-star from a four star, which is what I originally rated it, was the engrossing themes. Bardugo’s exploration of serious and troubling topics such as sexual assault and what consent means, feminism, classism, elitism and privilege, racism, and more, were fascinating, and handled with appropriate skill and sensitivity.
Reference the aforementioned, fair warning regarding the above as potential triggers. Moreover, there is plenty of violence and gore in the book, so readers beware if this is not something you want to digest.
This is the first book in a series, and I think it’s a series that is worth reading. The book presents a lot of realism, and plausible conflict. It has a great dose of the fantastical, is very imaginative, and has some truly mesmerizing moments. Along with the powerful themes, Ninth House has done more than enough for me to be looking forward with anticipation to the next book in the “Alex Stern” story.
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I’m an experienced writer, in that I’ve been writing stories all my life, yet never thought to publish them. I’ve written informally – short stories – to entertain friends and family, for community newspapers, volunteer organization magazines, and of course formal papers for University. Now, later in life, I’ve published what I believe is a great fantasy novel, and definitely worth reading, called A Drowned Kingdom. My target audience is those who enjoy “high fantasy”. A Drowned Kingdom is not “dark fantasy”. It’s written in a more idealized and grandiose style that I hope isn’t too preachy, and not too grim. Still, I’m hoping my book has appeal to those who don’t typically read this type of work – those who don’t read fantasy of any kind – because of the “every-person” themes permeating the novel: dysfunctional familial relationships, extramarital temptation, racism, misogyny, catastrophic loss, religion, crisis of faith, elitism, self-confidence, PTSD, and more.
Many of these themes I have either personal experience with, or have friends or family who have dealt with such issues. I’ve had a long professional law enforcement career, undergone traumatic events, yet been buoyed by family, faith, and positivity. I’m a racialized middle-aged man. I’ve seen a lot of life. Ultimately I want the planned series, of which A Drowned Kingdom will be the introduction, to be one of hope, and overcoming obstacles to succeed, which I believe is my story as well. My protagonist, Othrun, will undergo a journey where he’ll evolve, change, and shape a continent. He’s not always likeable. He’s a snob, bigot, is vain, yet struggles with confidence. He’s patriarchal. Overall, he’s flawed. But even ordinary flawed people can change. We’re all redeemable.
Ordinary people can make a difference, not just fictional Princes. I want that message to shine through my work.
WHERE TO FIND HIM
Twitter – @plstuartwrites
Facebook – @plstuartwrites