Leigh Bardugo makes her adult fantasy debut with Ninth House — what’s the final grade?
For many students, college is a time of change and transformation. The boundaries of reality are explored and solidified, the self emerging through the long process of independence, effort, and (if we’re being honest) no shortage of indulgence.
Still, the alchemy of higher education is, for most of us, a metaphor. Not so in Ninth House, the beguiling adult fantasy debut from young adult author Leigh Bardugo.
Truth be told, there isn’t too much that radically distinguishes Ninth House as an adult novel, as opposed to Bardugo’s previous young adult work. Yes, it is gritty, but so are Six of Crows and Crooked Kingdom. Yes, it is violent, but so is the Shadow & Bone trilogy. A slightly more generous helping of sex, sadness, and drug use seems to mark this particular boundary between adult and YA, which is more a commentary on genre distinctions than Bardugo’s writing or sensibilities.
But the boundary between YA and adult fantasy is much less important in Ninth House than the boundaries between the mundane and the darkly magical — a line that Bardugo erases with the kind of cackling confidence that drew readers of all ages to her previous work.
Set on the Yale campus and in the seemingly ordinary town of New Haven, Ninth House makes real and sometimes terrifying flesh of the misty mythology of collegiate lore. In Ninth House, the eight entombed “secret societies” of Yale (which really do exist!) aren’t just social halls or incubators for the future rich and powerful. They are sources — and their members guardians — of diverse and often disturbing magics that power everything from stock markets to celebrity the world over.
Coercion and creativity, potions and prophesy, desire and death — all churned out and controlled by generation after generation of Yale underclassman.
To guard against the obvious danger posed by these societies, Bardugo’s Yale has created the house of Lethe — the titular “Ninth House” — that functions as a part bureaucratic backstop, and part magical referee for the occult practices of the other eight Houses of the Veil. Dressed in more than its own fair share of ritual and storied history, it is Lethe, much more than Yale, that provides the transformative crucible for the agents of Ninth House.
Enter Galaxy “Alex” Stern, an enigmatic survivor hoping for some kind — or really, any kind — of transformation when she accepts the unlikely offer to join Yale and Lethe. A girl who has always hovered in the space between absolutes, Alex is a keenly-observed interlocutor between the ordinary and the supernatural; in fact, she always has been. Her life before Yale was a cacophony of magic and mundanity — her mother is a mystic, her father a mystery, Alex herself can see ghosts. Her childhood, such as it was, culminated in a mysteriously gory climax that led to her recruitment.
But on a deeper level, Alex represents a blend of hard-bitten realism and the kind of monstrous, hyper-saturated nightmare that wakes parents from sweaty sleep. In her, Bardugo combines the bleaching California sun, untempered intoxication, and the desperate, scrabbling difficulties of young womanhood, with an escalating series of lurid horrors that range from sexual exploitation to Tarantino-esque killings.
Alex is both someone you might know, and someone you might invent in order to tell a very specific story. Her life, like Ninth House, exists between phases; she is equal parts darkly ordinary and livid with terrifying explosions of the supernatural — and in Alex, it can sometimes be hard to tell exactly which is which.
This liminality makes Alex the perfect conduit for transformation, though she is by no means its only object over the course of Ninth House. Three mysterious points of change — one of the past, one of the just-present, and one of the near future — propel the story, sweeping Alex, her upperclass mentor Darlington, and the entire network of Houses much closer to the source of all their magics than they may be ready to handle.
The journey can occasionally feel protracted, but Bardugo has her final destination clear in mind; the concluding transformations at the end of Ninth House are thoroughly worth the wait.
Overall, Ninth House is a complicated treat, unfolding in slow but ultimately satisfying layers. The concept of collegiate mundanity secretly seething with magic is especially well-executed, shades of Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin peeking through in passages of quoted studiousness. The granular specifics of directions through New Haven bleed into exacting details of rituals and resurrections so thoroughly that a street corner can feel quite as mystical as an ensorcelled tomb. Crisp writing and Bardugo’s knack for creating knotty, bitingly likable characters anchors the tale in firm artistic territory, even as boundaries between the real and the fantastical rapidly dissolve.
It might seem superficially simple to drum conspiracy and intrigue out of Yale’s network of secret societies housed in tombs around the campus. But in Bardugo’s confection of class and classics, ruthless magic, and elaborate arcanum, all that undergraduate occult is just the beginning.
Ninth House is complicated, messy material, a transformation of expectation more than anything else. It more than makes the grade — and will leave readers hungry for the sophomore adventures of the sequel.