Galaxy “Alex” Stern knows she doesn’t belong. Her ability to see spirits has meant that she never belonged anywhere. Behind the storied, ivy walls of Yale, however, Alex knows she really doesn’t belong. It seems evident that her particular brand of magic is what got her a full scholarship to the university, even though she was discovered by her sponsors at the centre of a gruesome multiple homicide. And yet, she feels there is a reason behind the reason, just like the Grays that Alex can see clinging to the solid edges of reality. So, when Tara—a girl from the peripheries, unassociated with the secret societies—is murdered on Alex’s turf, Alex has trouble letting go. Not only does Tara remind Alex of a painful past, she may also have the answers to some questions that have been haunting Alex for a very long time.
There’s nothing to it, but to dive in.
Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo is not only her debut adult novel, it’s also her first urban fantasy novel–not that there is anything in the book to suggest that Bardugo isn’t a phenomenal writer. As evidenced by her Grishaverse novels, world-building is one of Bardugo’s strengths and even in a setting that may seem familiar to us, Bardugo builds its structures meticulously*. Very rarely does she languish on descriptions of architecture, instead Bardugo uses Alex’s discomfort to show readers what might be grating at Alex’s nerves, or Bardugo might entwine a Gray’s personal history with a secret society’s current actions, or even have Alex’s professors reveal something about the routine of Yale. The novel moves effortlessly between the real, the unreal, and the surreal, all by using Alex as transport. And the thing is, it’s just so easy to love Alex, despite her prickly demeanour. For anyone who has ever felt out-of-place, for anyone who has looked around and envied the confidence and ease with which people just find home beneath their feet, Alex is a most relatable protagonist. It also helps that she is no meek observer, despite what the relatively quiet, introspective beginning might suggest:
“Why didn’t you help me?” said Alex, her voice nearly a growl … “Take courage. No one is immortal. Do you know what it would it would have meant to me to know those words when I was a kid? It would have taken so little to change everything. But no one bothered. Not until I could be useful to you.” — [p. 125]
My point is, with Alex as your guide, you think you know what to expect—the drudgery of university life, or groups of power-hungry, rich people looking to get more powerful, or both—but there is so much more to it, so much more that can turn your stomach or slacken your jaw with awe. There is very little chance you won’t be surprised by the myriad worlds nestling inside of Ninth House.
And speaking of surprises, the plot itself is a writhing, twisting beast that is meant to take you by surprise. Bardugo uses flashbacks to her advantage here and we learn more about Alex, just as Alex is learning more about Yale, about Tara, and herself. Alex is a character with a great deal of magic, but is unable to transform her “abilities” into something that might be called “powers”. In a way, this is what makes Alex the realest thing about this book. She is both deeply fantastical and deeply not. Her discomfort at being around people she both dislikes and wants to be/like, the temerity with which she investigates mysteries—big and small—that no one deems important enough, the trauma and vulnerability she works so hard to keep hidden—every single thing about her is raw and it is very hard to look away. And yet, people did look away from Alex. People do look away from women like Alex. The beauty of Ninth House is that it makes anyone who beholds Alex—fictional or otherwise—confront their discomfort.
If you like the kind of fantasy that makes you squint at shadows, or hidden histories that you can’t stop thinking about, or a twisty plot with a truly twisted set of characters, and a side of fun/funny minor characters—my kingdom for Det. Turner***, tbh—then you’re sure to love Ninth House.