Ninth House: Black magic in Yale’s secret societies

Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsThe Broken Crown by Michelle West science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsNinth House by Leigh Bardugo

Galaxy “Alex” Stern (the name courtesy of her hippie mother) seems an obvious misfit at prestigious Yale University. Wealth, athletic talent and academic stardom are nowhere to be found in Alex’s life. Instead she’s a high school dropout with a history of dead-end jobs and drug use, and the survivor of a traumatic multiple homicide. But she has a rare talent that to date has brought her nothing but grief: Alex sees the ghosts of dead people.

As it turns out, that talent is highly useful to Yale’s eight elite secret societies, and they’ve had their eye on Alex for a while. Each of these houses specializes in a different type of black magic — Skull and Bones, for example, performs ritual vivisections of living people, examining their inner organs to predict stock market changes — and these dark rituals attract ghosts. A ninth Yale house, Lethe, polices the magical activities of those other eight houses and is tasked with keeping the ghosts in check, preventing them from causing chaos. Alex gets a full ride scholarship to Yale, provided that she joins Lethe. When a “townie” girl is murdered, Alex feels compelled to investigate it, gradually unearthing a hidden world of corruption, abuse of privilege and evil.

I was warned by a friend that Ninth House (2019), Leigh Bardugo’s new contemporary dark fantasy, might be too grim for me, but I was all, I love Leigh Bardugo! I gotta give it a shot! The SIX OF CROWS duology is dark fantasy, so I thought I was prepared.

Leigh Bardugo

Leigh Bardugo

Silly me.

Ninth House features an onslaught of horrible events, one piling on the next. The trigger list is almost too long to get into, but it includes the aforementioned vivisection, drug abuse, self-neglect, murder … and that’s just in the parts I read or skimmed. I’m reliably informed that its plot also includes child and statutory rape, other types of sexual assault, and forcible eating of human waste. It’s a deeply unpleasant world that Alex Stern lives in, and I realized fairly quickly that I didn’t want to live in it with her, not even for the few days it would take to read this book.

I’m not much of a fan of horror literature in general, and occult horror in particular. You may like Ninth House if you’re a fan of occult horror and are mentally and emotionally up to dealing with the morass of human failings and foul deeds. Ninth House is well-written and detailed, but arguably too detailed and slow-paced. It examines the patriarchy of our society and the unearned privileges of rich white men, who do most (though not all) of the ugly things in this book. Alex herself is a hard-edged survivor, but still struggling to recover from past traumas and to survive the pressures of life at Yale.

This is clearly one of those “your mileage may vary” types of books. Two of our other Fantasy Literature reviewers have checked out Ninth House: Jana skimmed through it and said that was enough to let her know that this isn’t a book for her. Terry, who enjoys horror novels, loved it.

Published in 2019. 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.

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TADIANA JONES, on our staff since July 2015, is an intellectual property lawyer with a BA in English. She inherited her love of classic and hard SF from her father and her love of fantasy and fairy tales from her mother. She lives with her husband and four children in a small town near the mountains in Utah. Tadiana juggles her career, her family, and her love for reading, travel and art, only occasionally dropping balls. She likes complex and layered stories and characters with hidden depths. Favorite authors include Lois McMaster Bujold, Brandon Sanderson, Robin McKinley, Connie Willis, Isaac Asimov, Larry Niven, Megan Whalen Turner, Patricia McKillip, Mary Stewart, Ilona Andrews, and Susanna Clarke.

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  1. Yep, this sounds like occult horror all right. Maybe a bit of social commentary/satire about privilege, too. I’ll have to grill Terry about it this weekend at FOGCon and decide if I want to read it. I did love SIX OF CROWS.

    • I loved the Six of Crows duology as well, so it surprised me that I found this one so off-putting. It’s definitely an adult/new adult novel; Bardugo doesn’t pull any punches here.

      I’m hoping Terry will add her review here sometime soon. It would be great to get her opposite views.

      • Paul Connelly /

        I had a more positive reaction than you, but I also skimmed over some of the more Grand Guignol moments, as I also do sometimes in grimdark novels. Right from the first scene I took it as being very dark, cutting satire. When you see Skull & Bones men (past members include Presidents George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush plus candidate John Kerry) reading the entrails of a homeless man to get stock market investment info, that’s a pretty darn good metaphor for what our lords and masters have been doing to poor Americans for the last 40 years.

        My only real complaint was she tried to throw in too many twists toward the end of the book.

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