top of page

Book Review: Feel haunted by Leigh Bardugo’s “Ninth House”

Halloween’s a few months late, but Leigh Bardugo’s “Ninth House” will haunt you day and night, like the ghosts — or Grays, as Bardugo calls them — that haunt the novel’ reluctant protagonist Galaxy “Alex” Stern.

Ex-junkie and high school dropout Alex gets a second chance at life after surviving a very suspicious murder at the prestigious Yale as a member of Lethe, a secret society that oversees the rituals of the eight other magical “Houses of the Veil” at the university.

Not to mention, Alex can see ghosts — or Grays all around her. The powerful faction of people who found Alex, and the members of Lethe, can only see Grays temporarily after ingesting something akin to battery acid, thus making Alex their prized racehorse — and a moving target.

Navigating the halls of Yale are hard enough, but her newfound membership into Lethe and the responsibilities of ensuring the houses don’t royally fuck up their rituals run circles around her academics. Not to mention, Alex’s mentor, the princely Darlington, has gone missing after a ritual gone-wrong and a local girl is gruesomely murdered.

Coming off the international success of her “Six of Crows” and “The Grisha Trilogy” series — both of which will be an upcoming Netflix series — Bardugo could have stuck to her magical worldbuilding and Russian-based folklore, but “Ninth House” is a whole different sort of wizardry.

“Ninth House” diverges down a darker and bloodier path than her previous works with dark academia vibes, Yale secret societies, the occult and ghosts thrown in there.

Bardugo weaves the dark tidbits of the occult with a square-peg-round-hole story that anyone who hasn’t fit the mold in a new place can relate to.

As the story progresses, two timelines unfold before us to line up to Alex’s present-day shenanigans. The past and present, told from mainly Alex’s perspective, but occasionally Darlington’s, coil around each other to answer three questions — What happened to the murdered girl? What happened to Darlington? And lastly, what happened to Alex to put her on this grim path?

Expertly woven into one another like a spider’s web, the stories form a macabre portrait of death, heartbreak, drugs and the occult with the backdrop of Alex’s home in Los Angeles and transplant home in New Haven.

If Bardugo is an expert at anything besides Russian folklore and molding loveably, wicked protagonists, it’s her writing of the extraordinary in relation to the mundane. These Houses of the Veil are based on real Yale secret societies with some of the richest and most powerful alumni in the world, but in Bardugo’s version, each society focuses on a particular type of magic to satiate the wallets of their powerful alumni. If a writer needs inspiration, one simply needs to partake in a ritual with the Aurelian House to break that writer’s block — but beware, even magic has its limits, ones that toe the line of life, death or madness.

This rubbing of elbows between the mundane and extraordinary makes the story all the more worthwhile as Alex and readers seem to be the only one truly aware of this blur.

But it’s the social commentary on powerful people, Ivy Leagues and elitism that would make anyone punch a couple of Bardugo’s character’s in the face. Paralleling to real life, the rich and powerful alumni of Yale’s secret societies take advantage of the young, hungry and desperate by using them for their personal gains and throwing them aside like trash. Take for example, Skull & Bones use mental illness patients at the local hospital to crack open and dig through their entrails to predict stock market changes, courtesy of a bought-off nurse willing to make extra cash.

Sound familiar?

Alex’s disbelief toward Yale and the elite is the icing on top for this story. As we follow along, we share the same WTF disbelief that Alex is confronted with day and night at Yale, which makes this twisted story a wicked and relatable delight to read.

And, honestly, I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a little droplet of magic in New Haven’s water supply after reading this.

Follow me on Instagram @bergreadstoomuch for more!


bottom of page