By Leigh Bardugo
Leigh Bardugo is an autobuy author for me these days. If I don’t have the funds to buy her newest release, you can bet your bottom dollar that my name is the first on the holds list for one of her newest books at my library. So when I saw the buzz surrounding Ninth House, and the fact that it was her first dabble into adult fiction, I. Was. There.
I read the Grisha Trilogy way back in the day, and devoured it! Then I went on to Six of Crows and, while I really enjoyed the story and the characters, it didn’t grab my attention as much as the Grishaverse did. I think the difference between these two series, while set in the same world, one focused heavily on fantasy and magic, while the other focused much more on gritty real world scenarios (set in a fantastical world).
I ran into similar ‘problems’ with Ninth House. Not that there were problems with Ninth House, but I really really really enjoy high fantasy, and this was pretty mild urban fantasy at best. I was a little worried when I first picked up this book by how many words I didn’t know on each page! It has been such a long time since an author has stumped me with their vocabulary left and right. I actually decided halfway through the book that the next time I read this, I’m going to make flashcards with all the words I didn’t know. It was definitely a good introduction to the Yale vibe of this novel, and the intentional mask of the prim and proper setting.
This novel follows a girl names Alex as she is indoctrinated into a hidden society at Yale. Her main job is to keep everyone honest and to be a physical reminder that they are not above the law. We quickly learn that things are not going as smoothly as one would hope, when a girl is murdered, and one of Alex’s friends goes missing. This novel flashes from the past, the present, and between two distinct characters. I liked that we got to view two unique character voices in this novel, but it did take away from seeing Alex with her roommates. For some reason it felt like a loss or a blow that we didn’t get a lot of interaction between those characters, but that was also because Alex was almost never at her dorm.
I also felt like the true college experience was really lacking in this novel. A subplot throughout is the will-she-won’t-she be able to pass her classes and stay at Yale next year, yet we never really saw her study, or attend class, or do anything to cement her emotional connection to her education. We are told repeatedly how important it is that she stays in school, yet we’re never shown what actions she takes to solidify her spot at Yale. So when the time came for her to either stay in college or be kicked out, I didn’t really care either way. I wasn’t invested in that part of the story, because it was barely there to begin with.
There were one or two times in this novel that really got to me, and this book should come with a few trigger warnings for drug abuse and rape. One scene in particular was so vulgar it has stuck with me vividly since the day I read it. I’m cursing my own imagination, and Leigh’s brilliant writing, for how easy it was for me to conjure it up in my mind. However I don’t think the scene was unnecessarily vulgar. It established a character trait (and fear) that helped you understand the main character a lot more for the duration of the novel.
I really think this novel was a step up from Six of Crows. Yes, I know I can’t say the stories are the same because they clearly are not, but hear me out. In Six of Crows we are diverting from high fantasy and magic and mixing harsh reality with fantasy. Ninth House takes this to the next level. In Ninth House we are even further removed from fantasy, and we’re really looking at the human experience: the good, the bad, and the really really bad. Of course there are a few ghosts and spells mixed in, but for me this novel was an expose on human nature and psychology.
The ending leads me to believe that there will be a second book in this series…if so, I’m in! This novel was, at times, hard to get through. For some of the time I thought we could be dealing with an unreliable narrator, and that proved to be sort of true. Our main character wasn’t unreliable, she had just withheld some of the truth until it became imperative that we know too. It was also hard for me to whiz through because I normally deal with strictly fantasy novels. If someone is murdered in a fantasy novel I’m much more removed from the victim or the case because the world doesn’t exist, and could never exist. In this novel, however, this Yale so mirrors our own world that it legitimately scared me at times: not the ghosts or demons, but the human beings doing atrocious things to each other. Maybe that was the point? To add magic to this story, and to still be more scared by regular people? Either way, I applaud Leigh Bardugo for stepping out of her Young Adult niche and boldly entering the Adult Fiction world. I cannot wait to see what she comes up with next.