But would it have mattered if she’d been someone else? If she’d been a social butterfly, they would have said she liked to drink away her pain. If she’d been a straight-A student, they would have said she’d been eaten alive by her perfectionism. There were always excuses for why girls died.
Leigh Bardugo’s latest book Ninth House is by every measure a success, and it’s easy to see why.
In Ninth House, Alex Stern begins her new life as a student at Yale University. But with her background, and her ability, she’s not like the other students. In Ninth House we explore, through Alex, a blend of the real and the unreal as she learns about Yale’s exclusive clubs and their influence, their dealings with magic and ritual and power.
I really wanted to like this book, having loved the first in Bardugo’s Six of Crows duology, but I was aware that a lot of the split reviews hinged on the voice and pacing Bardugo chose for Ninth House. I didn’t know what to expect, and when I first started it I really couldn’t get past the first few pages. However, after walking away for a month, I came back to it and thoroughly enjoyed it in a “cover to cover” kind of way.
Overall, I think it’s an excellent example of the kind of skilled writing Bardugo is bringing to the fantasy genre. You see, like Alex from the book Bardugo went to Yale, studying English, and it’s clear that she learned her lessons well. She successfully avoids a lot of the tropes that popular fantasy writers can fall into. In another author this might read (so to speak) as maturity of voice, but in Bardugo it’s something else. I had this feeling when reading Six of Crows, but in Ninth Gate it was never more than a few page turns away from my awareness.
Bardugo’s writing is clean. It’s straightforward and poetic together in an excellent balance; it’s clear and evocative and all the things a fantasy writer might aim for (I assume, not being one myself). But Bardugo’s writing is almost clinically clean. Formulaically clean. And I couldn’t quite shake the feeling that I was reading a paint-by-numbers masterpiece. Perhaps, I think, she learned her lessons at Yale too well.
“The night of the Manuscript party, Darlington spent the early-evening hours with the windows of Black Elm lit, handing out candy, jack-o’-lanterns lining the driveway. He loved this part of Halloween, the ritual of it, the tide of happy strangers arriving on his shores, hands outstretched. Most times Black Elm felt like a dark island, one that had somehow ceased to appear on any chart. Not on Halloween night.”
I did also struggle against the need to roll my eyes, hearing again and again just how pleased Bardugo is with herself for attending Yale. Yes, it’s a great accomplishment. Yes, Yale is the perfect setting for this story, and her experience there makes her uniquely qualified to tell this story well. But there was just a tidbit too much smug self-importance shining through in those early chapters for my taste. Not enough to turn me off by any means. Just enough for me to have left some small snarky comments in the margins.
Even so, I did thoroughly enjoy this book. In fact, I’m fairly sure it’ll be my first reread of 2020. I liked it so well I’m so bummed to find that the sequel isn’t expected until 2021 (and is untitled). Because I’m not done with this story. I’m not done with the world, or the characters, or the narratives that we only got a glimpse of during the course of this book. Simply: I’m hooked.
Many people (most of them fans of Bardugo’s earlier work) complained that Ninth House had pacing issues, particularly a slow start in the first half. With those folks I strongly disagree. Bardugo chose a different pacing style for this book than I’ve seen from her before and it suited this narrative perfectly, allowing the story to unfold organically as we experience it along a disjointed timeline, and allowing moments in the story to illuminate the characters and setting gracefully.
When it comes to the characters, setting, and plot, I have nothing to say but good things. She’s a skilled author who knows her craft, and in Ninth House multiple complex characters play important roles in interwoven plots without pulling the reader’s attention from the whole. And on top of it all is woven an incredibly unique magical system and just tons and tons of ghosts.
She did an excellent job introducing and then twisting the familiar concept of secret societies full of students and backed by powerful alums up to no good in the shadows. I’ll admit – that trope’s been my jam since Gilmore Girls was on the air, but Bardugo really accomplished something fascinating with that starting point, creating something exciting and darkly fascinating, horrific and just slightly too believable.
I love, too, that she’s not afraid to leave things unanswered. Yes, there will be a second book. But Bardugo didn’t sprinkle a couple of questions near the end to motivate a sequel. She left multiple things unanswered about characters, plot, motivation, and the structure of the world simply because doing so makes the story feel more alive, less contrived than witnessed.
All in all, I truly, deeply enjoyed reading Ninth House. It was everything I’d hoped it would be, and I hate that I have to wait at least a baker’s dozen months before I can read the sequel. There’s enough world here to support a lengthy series, it seems to me. I can’t wait to see what comes next.