4 out of 5 stars
If anyone could make me care about a gothic ghost story, it would be Leigh Bardugo. And she does, from the first to last pages of Ninth House.
Alex Stern is a California teen with a very troubled past, and an even more troubling ability: She can see ghosts. But bad gets better when she learns that some rich people really want to put her “skill” to work. So Alex finds herself enrolled as a free ride freshman at Yale University. There, while higher learning occurs on the surface, eight ancient Houses of the Veil use various powers to commune with – and profit from – dark magic. Alex’s work study is to serve secretive Lethe House as a sort of supernatural campus police officer, making sure the magic of the elite stays secret, and the town of New Haven stays safe.
Leigh Bardugo’s worldbuilding has always been exemplary, and it’s no different here. While she’s describing a real place in modern times, she captures the nuance and disparity New Haven is famous for. Her story hits the ground running, and I had to resist that pace to slow down an orient myself. She layers her gothic ghost world atop that like a carefully strung net, so close and sheer I understood why the real world can’t see it. The supernatural is dark, cold, scary, and waiting to get into real life. Bardugo’s world of magic is perfectly written as one that people shouldn’t be messing with. And her people are perfectly written as those elite assholes who still would.
Alex – full first name Galaxy (fantastic) – as written is a true survivor. She has more than a lifetime of experience behind her 18 years. She quickly learned no one else could see ghosts, nor would they believe her – no matter what happened. In trying to control the gift herself, Alex made some bad choices. Now she’s out of her drug den-misfit-troublemaker lifestyle and surrounded by privileged kids vomited up from the Hamptons. She’s got a self-possession also beyond her years: she recognizes and regrets her mistakes, she still found good in the worst things. Alex isn’t the most likeable heroine, but I really wanted something to go right for her for a change.
Enter Darlington (a compound of Daniel Arlington – Bardugo had a lot of fun with names here). He’s a step above Alex in the Lethe House hierarchy and a million times more worldly. He serves as an easy, excellent foil to Alex, and driver of the plot.
The story itself is intricate and dark. Complicated forces are at play and people with this kind of power are never who they seem. It’s a many-leveled mystery, kind of like a better written/less puzzle-based Dan Brown book meets that Paul Walker/Josh Jackson movie Skulls. In the end, the story is much bigger, and the dark magic much deeper, than anyone expected. Alex was the key to finding it. Will she be the key to fixing it? Stay tuned for the sequel. (No title or release date announced.)
I liked everything about Ninth House, despite the fact that I don’t really care for gothic ghost stories. For the right person, this book would be absolutely transporting and immersive. So I give it 4/5 stars for what it is to the perfect reader. And I’ll certainly read the next installment, because if Bardugo can get me this far, maybe she can even make me a fan.