Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo
The mesmerizing adult debut from Leigh Bardugo, a tale of power, privilege, dark magic, and murder set among the Ivy League elite
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. In fact, by age twenty, 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 prestigious universities on a full ride. What’s the catch, and why her?
Still searching for answers, Alex arrives in New Haven tasked by her mysterious benefactors with monitoring the activities of Yale’s secret societies. Their eight windowless “tombs” are the well-known haunts of the rich and powerful, from high-ranking politicos to Wall Street’s biggest players. But their occult activities are more sinister and more extraordinary than any paranoid imagination might conceive. They tamper with forbidden magic. They raise the dead. And, sometimes, they prey on the living.
Ninth House absolutely blew me away. I have read Leigh Bardugo before (The Grisha Trilogy) — Six of Crows is still on my TBR — but this book was entirely different from “The Grishaverse.” When comparing The Grisha Series against this first book in The Alex Stern Series, I would compare the Grisha series to a child perceiving the fantasy of what magic might be, which developed over time into Galaxy Stern, a real world, hardened survivor, whose very being and situation pulled her into a world she never expected to be in; a world where she eventually blossomed into a darkly-enlightened real-world practitioner of the occult — but not to meet her own ends — to act as one of the shepherds who oversees the other practitioners and holds them accountable in order to keep the magic in order and to keep the ritualists in check.
This book resonated with me on so many levels. I am a sucker for anti-heroes and people perceived as bad who actually work for the good, because that’s basically who and what I am. I am a hacker. However, I don’t hack for the bad; I hack for the good. My job is to do the exact same things, using the exact same tools as the bad guys — and yes, it gives me a rush — but turning that power around and using it as a way to keep the black hats in check is part of my daily job. We try to “find the magic first” and come up with “reversal spells” in order to prevent and mitigate any possible damage to “the system” by the unsavory type of hackers. Sure, my job may be a little more boring than that of a black hat, but it also doesn’t come with a bad conscience or moral repercussions. I was able to see through Alex Stern’s eyes and put myself into her shoes as she went through a fast and confusing initiation into this brand new world that opened up to her.
I am also a sucker for realism. I have a very niche taste for fiction, in the fact that it doesn’t really grab me and hold my attention unless it is somewhat believable. As outlandish and the events in this book may be to ordinary readers, to those more in the know, dare I say initiated, would understand that magic has more to do with a personal state of consciousness that taps into a collective subconsciousness (or collective unconscious, as Carl Jung would say), rather than what is perceived by other individuals or the collective consciousness as a whole. That being said, it could also be said that magic, or this connection to the collective unconscious can have major interactions with our daily conscious lives, even though we are unconscious of it at the time — much like all of the students in the book who were affected by the murder of Tara Hutchins, though very few were intimately aware and involved with the magical circumstances surrounding her death. Such is the quantum nature of magic itself — always creating histories and backstories to cover itself up and keep the mysteries intact. Does the moon only exist when you look at it? What about the thought experiment of Last Thursdayism? It almost brings up the wave-particle nature of light itself, if one wants to go down the rabbit hole of quantum mechanics and read up on the debates between Einstein and Bohr about quantum non-locality and Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle — but these are digressions.
The magic in this book is not some sort of troped-up, half-pagan nonsense that you ordinarily see in mainstream pop culture. The magic in this book is actually more on the level of ritual magick, most-popularized by secret societies of the Western esoteric tradition, such as The Hermetic Order of The Golden Dawn, and Ordo Templi Orientis, whose most influential members, would be [respectively] Israel Regardie and Aleister Crowley. There are also some slight nods to theosophy, and the book makes a few direct (and many indirect) references to Western hermeticism, but mostly restrains itself to symbolic archetypes that can be understood by all readers — something that I found respectable, which ultimately kept the reader searching for more. I really like the fact that foundation of this book lies in fact, while the plot is structured around fiction. Where can I read more of these type of books?!
My wife, Shannon, was born and raised in Connecticut, where the events in this book took place, and I have visited before, so I felt even more of a connection with many of the localized references. New England definitely has deep ties to magic and secret societies, so I felt that the setting of this book couldn’t have been more perfect. I feel like there should be a relevant plug for Apathy’s “Connecticut Casual” somewhere in this review, simply because the overall theme of that album meshes perfectly with the setting of this book — as odd as that may sound. Therefore, I’ll leave these two distinctly different tracks here, which seem to most appropriately describe both the simultaneous solid, physical reality-based, as well as mystical, metaphysical reality-based themes of this book and its overall feel:
Something that I like to do in order to convey the themes and feelings of a book to those who haven’t read it yet, is to describe a few movies or TV series that best fit the theme of the book so they can get a better idea of the content and overall feeling by watching the trailers. For this book, that combo is a no-brainer, and is as follows:
- Netflix Original Series, The Order (2019)
- The Skulls (2000)
- SyFy Original Series, The Magicians (2016)
- Stanly Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut (1999)
- A Dark Song (2017)
Ninth House was, at its very core, a murder mystery, with the keyword being mystery. It was much more than that, and I would have actually liked to have seen less investigation and more magic, but that’s just my personal opinion. Darlington was a character that I wanted to see more of (without giving away any spoilers). Ninth House had quite a few twists a long the way, with almost an M. Night Shyamalan ending — where you think you know, but then your mind gets flipped and then utterly blown away. Overall, this book just got me. It got me good. It’s rare that I finish a book as quickly as I finished this one, but I simply couldn’t put it down. It was a straight-up five-star read.