December 8, 2023

Novel Lives

Book Publicity, Reviews, Author Interviews, and Discussion Posts by Susan Crosby

Devastatingly Honest, Entwined With Magic, Ninth House, By Leigh Bardugo Unapologetically Takes No Prisoners

Just a note before I start:

I am under no guise that this review begins to do any justice to Ninth House. I have tried desperately to not ramble my way through this review in a stream of conscious. I waited until I was mostly through Kingdom for a Stage to write it, so I had some distance. In doing so, I feel I’ve written the most boring review in the history of reviews.
It might have been better to let myself just go the stream of consciousness route. I’m not sure. But it is the best I could do for the first of two (well four, if you include next month) reviews I feel like I’ve been waiting a lifetime to write. Hopefully, I will get better at writing these big, I can’t wait for it reviews as I they come along.


Image is from Goodreads and Flatiron

Don’t we all wish for this situation? At our lowest life point, for someone, anyone to walk up to us and hand the get out of jail free card? To say- here take my hand and start all over. Clean slate. Right now. You are Cinderella and I am your fairy Godmother. It really does happen. Not to everyone- but to you. This is your lucky day.
You know that you must be dreaming or it must be too good to be true, just like your mother always told you. Because when it seems like it is, it has to be, right?
But damn it all to hell. You are in a shit position and God you just want out. You have to get out. So, you take the strangers hand, close your eyes and with the last bit of faith you have, you leap. Because what do you have left to lose? Nothing.
Except, for Galaxy “Alex” Stern, she finds out that when running headfirst into the elite and privileged that thought to use her and her desperation? There was still plenty to lose. And she still had plenty to lose.
But instead, she surprises herself, even more than those who would think her too weak to fight. She learns that she has strength to beat them at their own game.
Ninth House, by Leigh Bardugo is everything everyone said it would be. But more importantly it is everything Bardugo said it would be, everything she wanted it to be. Just before and after Ninth House came out, she did numerous interviews talking about her intentions for Ninth House.
Bardugo is non-apologetic in her approach, for its disturbing content and intent. Nor should she be. Artists, unless it is purposely hateful in speech towards a group of people, should not apologize for their art.
Beyond that, Ninth House is a powerful look at privilege (social, economic, gender), campus rape and how not just in the moment, but from generation to generation it all plays out. Once a family is in power, it stays there via any and all means necessary.
And it is all wrapped in a setting that is charged with the paranormal, layering not just one, but multiple unique magic systems, attributed to each of the eight houses (I thought of them as fraternities for context of my undergraduate and graduate school experience) at Yale University.
Magic systems included, but were not limited to:

  • Divination
  • Portal Magic
  • Necromancy
  • Glamours
  • Logomancy

After surviving a mysterious and gruesome multiple homicide that stole Alex’s best friend Hellie, Alex is offered a spot at the Ninth House at Yale University, Lethe. It is the mission of Lethe to be the shepherds, watchdogs that keep the eight houses in check.

… monitoring the rites and practices of any senior societies trafficking in magic, divination, or other worldly discourse, with the express intent of keeping citizens and students safe from mental, physical, and spiritual harm and fostering amicable relations between the societies and school administration.

Alex is chosen for her natural (i.e. she doesn’t need to utilize a drug) ability to see greys (ghosts). Her whole life Alex has seen greys, suffering alone in this ability. It has broken her spirit, her life and cost her relationships. She is paired up with the veteran, Darlington who is to train her.
But when he suddenly goes missing and a townie (New Haven resident/non-student) is murdered, Alex is thrown into a situation she is not ready for. In effect, crystallizing that like most things, this get out of jail card is too good to be true.
From here Ninth House is a relentless traumatic and dark read. It is both disturbing and enlightening. It would be a blatant lie to say I didn’t grimace through entire chapters and wonder about what in the ever-loving hell I was reading. But I would also be lying if I didn’t say they were, without a doubt, the best chapters in the book.
Somewhere along the line we lost the ability to value our verbal shocks in the face of being awakened to the brutalities in the world. Some may say that you don’t have to deal in harsh realities to come to certain conclusions or to face the brutal in brutal honesty, but I wouldn’t agree.
If you send your daughter to college without understanding the extreme dangers that exist on campus, then how exactly can you help her understand the truth of how she must protect herself, and work with a circle of friends to stay safe?
I’m not saying Ninth House is the only way to do this but one way or another we all need to face these realities. Turning a blind eye to how the powerful abuse their positions, how men abuse women, how without a get out of jail card it is near impossible to change the class you are born into, solves nothing. Within the guise of a fantasy novel, Leigh Bardugo forces your hand to face the immediate and long-term effects of these contemporary themes.
When discussed in normal, contemporary contexts, it is very easy to dismiss them as scholarly. In a feel-good movie, everything just works out at the end.
Ninth House promises you neither. The deeper you get into it, the more you unravel how ugly the system is. The more Alex tries to fit into a world that granted her this new start, the more she realizes how little it ever wanted her. And more importantly, how little she wanted it,  once she saw beyond the facade. Alex chose to break the whole damn thing, instead.
At the end you don’t get the happy ending, you don’t get to feel good. You have questions- a lot of them. It isn’t tidy or neat. But if you are willing to face the brutal reality that is wrapped up in the fantasy land Bardugo created?
The next installment, I believe, will only promise two things- maybe some answers to the questions yet to be answered- while leaving many new questions that are yet lingering on the horizon.
But that is very fitting for a book that is so full of grey areas. It forces you (although I am all about grey areas) to really consider the idea of good vs. evil. There are very few people I’ve known to be purely good or evil. They do exist, just not the majority.
This is especially true of Alex, herself. And when that line begins to get mucked up in your mind, many dynamics of the book start to shift.
Being this is the first book of a series, there is so much we don’t know. It is like Bardugo is going to open your mind to possibilities if she has to use a crowbar to do it.
What I thought about certain characters at the start of the book is nowhere what I thought at the end. And I imagine that ground will continue to shift throughout the series.
Speaking of Kingdom for a Stage- going to finish that now…

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