4.5/5 stars — a twisty revenge fantasy couched in dark academia and darker magic This book isn’t for the faint of heart. Neither—I want to clarify based on some negative reviews I’ve read—is it intended for the same audience as Leigh Bardugo’s YA books. The main character of Ninth House is Alex Stern, and her traumatic history, which includes rape, assault, and drug abuse, factors heavily into her present story. I’m not entirely onboard the dark academia train simply as a matter of personal taste, but Ninth House was well-crafted in terms of suspense and driven by a powerful protagonist, which won me over right away. (As another personal note, this book helped prod me out of a minor reading slump.) In terms of plot, it’s unique—at least, I can’t think of any movies, shows, or novels I’d consider close enough in atmosphere and story to compare it to. I liked how Ninth House framed the issues of privilege and classism. Alex observes that Yale students—especially the white male ones—can make grave mistakes and have them wiped away by money and influence. Alex herself comes from a background with very little safety net, and her combination of bitterness over her peers’ unearned easy lives and determination to hold onto her own unlikely spot in their world is relatable and refreshing. I also appreciated that Bardugo didn’t delve into how Alex’s race may be used against her. Alex is a person of color, although she’s not sure of her dad’s race so there’s some ambiguity, but Bardugo emphasized the issue of white privilege instead of trying to write a marginalization she doesn’t (as far as I’m aware) experience.
Some other highlights of the story for me
women supporting other women. From Alex’s girlfriend Hellie (dead before the book begins, but seen through the past timeline) to the inimitable Pamela Dawes, the other female characters are mostly friends and allies to Alex. She shows solidarity in turn, including helping one of her housemates get revenge on a frat boy who assaulted her.
the magic system. Magic, whether the manufactured kind used by the societies or the innate kind that allows Alex to see ghosts, has costs and a clear set of rules. I liked that it was gory and messy and that the narrative didn’t veer away from how its practitioners had often stolen methods or tools from other cultures.
the worldbuilding in general, but specifically the way in which location matters and houses/special places seem almost like characters in their own right
the prose. It’s pretentious and convoluted at times, but this is a book about secret societies at an Ivy League school, so it works for me. I liked how amid the complex sentences and big words, there are times when the wording is succinct and snappy, delivering extra punch to dramatic moments. My verdict: Ninth House won’t be for everyone, and interested readers should check the list of content warnings before diving in. However, I think it showcases a different set of skills than Bardugo’s YA books—and, full disclosure, those were hit-or-miss for me, while Ninth House resonated with me much more strongly. Ninth House may appeal to people who enjoyed The Magicians (the show; I can’t speak to the books, which I haven’t read). Regardless, brace yourself for some rough content, but know it’s not superfluous…and that the resolution will be gratifying. Content warnings: graphic rape, sexual assault, drug use/abuse/addiction, ritual self-harm, gore, murder, death of a loved one