Ninth House is author Leigh Bardugo’s debut adult fantasy novel and the first instalment of her Alex Stern series. Readers may also know her from her many young adult novels set in ‘the Grishaverse’ such as Shadow and Bone and Six of Crows, which have been adapted into an original series by Netflix. Ninth House is a novel I had been meaning to pick up for ages, but I was not sure what to expect; I am always a little wary of fantasy novels set in a present speculative universe. I should not have worried; Ninth House was a great read and is perfect for fans of dark fantasy, especially if they also like their dark fantasy mixed in with magical detective fiction.
Ninth House is set in and around Yale University. Luckily, Bardugo has added a map showing the locations of the different colleges and various other university buildings to help us get our bearings. The ‘ninth house’ of the title refers to a magical secret society called Lethe House whose role is to monitor the behaviours of the other occult secret societies at Yale, ‘the ancient eight.’ Hence why Lethe is the ‘ninth house’. Lethe House’s unlikely newest recruit is our main character Galaxy ‘Alex’ Stern. Unlike most people she is tasked with keeping an eye on, Alex is not from privilege or exceptionally academic. She’s had a harrowing upbringing and possesses an innate arcane ability that makes her valuable to Lethe, even if said ability has haunted her for most of her life.
There is a split timeline to the narrative structure of Ninth House, which eventually converges. Alex’s chapters focus on the present, with her role of supervising the other societies and her slightly slapdash investigation of the murder of a local woman, which she believes has more to it than a domestic dispute getting out of hand. There are also the chapters of Darlington, the Virgil to Alex’s Dante, which take place slightly earlier, and the timelines eventually converge. It was not immediately clear to me that this was happening, so if you do pick up Ninth House, the key to the ‘when’ you are in the story is under each chapter number, where it gives a season. The jumping around did feel a bit jarring at first, but a split narrative was essential for the world-building of Ninth House. Darlington’s character is the more experienced member of Lethe House, and it is through his training of Alex we both learn the history and roles of the other houses and how the magic of this world works. The first part of Ninth House did have a lot of information in a short time, but unless readers already possess knowledge of both classical history and the geography of New Haven, it needed to be there.
Bardugo goes quite dark in the content of Ninth House. Some of this is dark humour that I found appealing, like the idea that Jodie Foster and Anderson Cooper are alumni of the same magical secret society or that one of the houses rigged a presidential election. But there is also a heck of a lot of violence. In an early chapter, there is a gruesome magical ritual involving vivisection. The murder Alex Stern investigates is brutal. Magically supercharged marijuana is one thing, but a magical date rape drug is quite another. In Ninth House, Bardugo unflinchingly shows two opposite ends of society’s spectrum. The harsh realities of Alex’s earlier life with drug use and a seedy criminal underworld juxtapose the abuses of power by the privileged few who are part of the top tier. I have a feeling people may jump into Ninth House if they recognise Bardugo’s name and not be prepared for how dark it is, and it needs to be said that this is not a gateway into the adult fantasy shelves.
However, Ninth House is a well-written dark fantasy. The academic elements and setting were appealing, and I found the magical structure of the different houses interesting. I am glad this is the start of a series and will certainly be picking in the next instalment, Hell Bent, which is out now from Gollancz. 4/5