Review: Ninth House (Alex Stern #1) by Leigh Bardugo

I’ve been meaning to read this book for a while, but Australian book prices struck again, so I waited until it was only 30ish dollars to pick it up. I’m actually glad I did, despite absolutely loving the book, because now the wait for the sequel will be slightly less agonising.

I’m too old to use terms like ‘dark academia’ without feeling like a marketing executive desperately trying to connect with ‘the youth’, but damn if this book didn’t demand a dark academia photoshoot. The snake is subtly holographic(!), and overall, I love the simple design that matches the tone of the book, while also references actual imagery from the book itself

“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.”

Ninth House combines nearly all of my favourite tropes into one, without every seeming stale or predictable. There’s commentary and emotional nuance packed into this book, along with a fascinating world where the social and magical elite play with the lives of ordinary people, all while going through the motions of a college education.

Alex Stern is a fantastic character, and even though I wish her backstory hadn’t been quite so dark (trigger warnings for sexual assault, physical assault, drug and alcohol abuse are kind of a necessity for this book); I think the themes Ninth House includes made Alex’s past integral to the story, rather than just seemingly thrown in as an easily solved hurdle for her to jump through. My only criticism is that Alex’s drug abuse doesn’t seem to affect her in any way, and while it would absolutely change the tone of the book in a way I probably would enjoy less, I don’t think it’s realistic that years of abusing drugs could be overcome with no lingering effects.

Darlington was a fascinating character, the perfect foil for Alex, and I loved the way their differing life experiences didn’t make them interact in the way you might expect. While Darlington’s backstory also had slightly unrealistic aspects, I thoroughly enjoyed the way his character was also moulded by the way he was raised.

Dawes, Turner and Alex’s roommates were all charming characters that I didn’t expect to become so interesting and likeable over the course of the series, and I loved the way Alex didn’t suffer the protagonist’s curse of having seemingly no connections to other people that might hinder the plot. Alex has a past, a family, and people who care about and are impacted by her decisions, and all of this helps bring her, the world, and the surprisingly three-dimensional cast of supporting characters alive. The bridegroom was also interesting, and I loved his part in the book.

The plot of Ninth House is fast moving, and while I don’t usually enjoy books that start with flash-forwards, the body of the book occurs with the main ‘spoiled’ event already having happened, so it didn’t read as a cheap attempt at building suspense, but rather an interesting way to start a non-linear narrative. I was one again surprised and delighted at just how many things a talented author can have happen in a novel, without the storyline seeming disjointed. I loved the way the various houses were explored, with the history of Lethe weaving them all together. The ending was satisfying, with a solid tie in to lead to the next book in the series (which I am eagerly anticipating).

The setting of the book was almost a character in its own right, and the world of ivy league colleges and supernatural secret societies was an undeniably fascinating one. Much like in her previous Grisha series, Leigh Bardugo created an immersive world with magic woven into the fabric of society. Seeing this done in an urban fantasy setting (arguably my favourite genre) was just as amazing as I had imagined. This book wasn’t quite perfect, but it was exactly to my taste.

I was reminded at various points in Ninth House of multiple books—all of which I count among my favourites—but I think this book can best be imagined as a mix of VE Schwab’s Vicious, Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, though fans of Holly Black’s Curseworkers trilogy, Maggie Stiefvater’s Raven Cycle and Nina Sakovic’s All for the Game series would also find plenty to enjoy in Ninth House.  

Basically, if you don’t mind dark themes; love a high-stakes, character driven plot; enjoy immersive fantasy settings and social commentary, Ninth House is the book for you.


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