Alex Stern #1

Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo

Publication Date: October 8, 2019

Summary from GoodReads:

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. By age twenty, in fact, 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 elite universities on a full ride. What’s the catch, and why her?

Still searching for answers to this herself, Alex arrives in New Haven tasked by her mysterious benefactors with monitoring the activities of Yale’s secret societies. These eight windowless “tombs” are well-known to be haunts of the future rich and powerful, from high-ranking politicos to Wall Street and Hollywood’s biggest players. But their occult activities are revealed to be more sinister and more extraordinary than any paranoid imagination might conceive.

Confession:

This has been one of the most hyped books this fall and there are a ton of reviews on Goodreads, most probably better than mine, which I urge you to go read. while I personally loved this book, there are many who had issues with it. I understand their perspectives, this is not a book for everyone, but I thought it was brilliant and wonderful and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

This book was a bit nostalgic for me. I grew up in a suburb of New Haven and spent much of my time around Yale. Some of the best pizza restaurants and bars were of course located near the campus. Plus I visited many of the museums and theaters and other great places that are mentioned in the book. Although I was only ever on Yale’s ‘campus’ once that I can remember, I can recall how spooky and otherworldly it felt. I can certainly say that it would definitely be a place that ghosts would hang out in. The many buildings and places described in the book are just as I remember them.

“All you children playing with fire, looking surprised when the house burns down”

Nostalgia aside, the paranormal side of the story, that is overlaid onto the New Haven setting, was so well done. I can totally see this other side to the Yale societies, the rituals and the magic done to help the alumni succeed. Part of the magical system also helps to explain some of the things that have always plagued New Haven, why it never seems to succeed in anything that it tries to make the town better. But the supernatural story is only part of this book, and not even the more important one.

“With each life I took, I soon saw a new temple raised to my glory – built by boys who never stopped to wonder at the power they claimed, only took it as their due. They toy with magic while I fashion immortality.”

At the heart of this story is how power and prestige takes advantage of the less fortunate. How it breeds people who don’t care about the destruction they cause around them. They just take what they think is theirs by the right of the fact that they are powerful enough to do so. It is also about how murdered girls can sometimes be forgotten, especially if they don’t come from the right part of town. There is a lot of brutality on the part of some of the societies in how they use others for their own purposes, not just in the blood rites they perform but in how they turn a blind eye to the things that happens because of their greed.

“Alex felt something dark inside her uncoil. “You’re a flat beast,” Hellie had once said to her. “Got a little viper lurking in there, ready to strike. A rattler probably.” She’d said it with a grin, but she’d been right.”

The main narrator is Alex Stern, a girl who comes from a harsh background, and has a hard time fitting into the Yale culture. But she tries her hardest, although by the end of the book she does come to realize that her best chance to survive is to just be who she is, tough, not afraid to do what needs to be done no matter the consequences. She really is a survivor and will continue to fight for what is right. Her emotional arc, from a girl terrified of the ghosts she can see and what they have done to her in the past, to one that forms a tentative alliance with them to help her get to the truth, is truly well done and amazing to watch.

“That was what magic did. It revealed the heart of who you’d been before life took away your belief in the possible. It gave back the world all lonely children longed for.”

Darlingon, Daniel Arlington, is the other narrator, although his narrations are basically flashbacks. He was the one training Alex and he is probably the complete opposite of her as far as demeanor and outlook on life. He loves magic and envies Alex’s ability to see ghosts. He has also had a rough childhood, but different from Alex’s and that is reflected in who he is. His part in the story is very small this time around, but important too. I hope to see more of him in the next book as I enjoyed him quite a lot.

Two other characters are worth mentioning as they help Alex quite a bit in her struggles. Dawes, who is always there to clean up the messes that Alex gets herself into. She is quiet and just mostly just wants to shut herself away to finish her dissertation, but she can be tough as nails when she needs to. Turner is the police detective who is aware of the supernatural aspect of the societies. He finds Alex to be a pain, but is there to help when needed. I really liked him and his perspectives on what was going on.

This novel is unlike this authors other works. It is an adult urban fantasy that is gritty and sometimes harsh in its perspective of the world. It can get bogged down in the prose a bit, and the first third of the book was a bit slow, but once you get past that, it is a really hard book to put down. There is a bit of a cliff hanger at the end, so it will be a long wait till the next one, but one that I am sure will be worth the wait.

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