Reed's Recommendation Corner: The Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo


Cover of the book Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo. The cover is black, fading into teal, with a black snake coiled around the words, with its head pointed towards the top of the book. The snake is in black and teal.

Content Warning: Substance Abuse, Death, Addiction, Date Rape

"Where were you?" she demanded. "All you wise men of Lethe with your spells and your chalk and your books? Where were you when the dead were following me home? When they were barging into my classrooms? My bedroom? My damn bathtub? Sandow said you had been tracking me for years, since I was a kid. One of you couldn't have told me how to get rid of them? That all it  would take was a few magic words to send them away?"

Galaxy Stern, known as Alex Stern to everyone but her mother, has a talent. Or rather, she has a curse. She can see dead people. *cue the James Newton Howard soundtrack*  Because of her gift, she's been given the chance to join the elite at Yale. Not just the elite, but she's given the opportunity to join one of the secret houses that keep Yale afloat. Lethe, the Ninth House, is tasked with overseeing the other houses to make sure that they don't attract attention. Or make messes. Lethe House protects the rituals of the other houses, and keeps the dead (called Grays) out. 

This isn't wide-eyed children learning to wave magic wands to lift feathers into the air. These rituals epitomize greed, the need to do anything to stay at the top of the food chain. It's cutting open the guts of a schizophrenic transient to get predictions on the stock market. It's using magical herbs to claim the will of a person, and force them to do their bidding. It's dangerous and greedy prep school students and their sponsors holding the fate of nations in their hands and using dangerous magic to keep their power.

Alex doesn't fit into this world, no matter how hard she tries. She is a survivor. She is formerly a drug addict and small time dealer, whose life had been headed in a dark direction before she lost the one person who mattered the most to her, Hellie. Sandow, the praetor of the Lethe House, visits her hospital room and gives her a choice: escape to Yale and make something of herself or spend the rest of her life as a junkie or worse. 

This represents one of the central issues in this book: the powerful taking advantage of those who suffer at the edges of society. Sandow approaches Alex while she is recovering from the trauma of seeing Hellie die and the murders of everyone in the apartment they were staying in. She is handcuffed to the bed, at perhaps her most vulnerable. 

Alex doesn't forget this. She doesn't forget that as hard as she tries, she knows that the fiction she is building around her life at Yale is fragile, at best. And Alex is a survivor.

When her mentor Darlington is sucked into a dark portal, Alex falls deeper into her imposter syndrome. She is set adrift, attempting to cover for him (at the insistence of the Praetor), and is drawn into the investigation of a murder on campus. The victim reminds her too much of what she could have been, and even under threat of losing it all, she decides to look into it. 

Alex, as a character is very street wise, where her compatriots aren't. However, she is very naïve about the workings of Yale and the people in power. When she finally begins to learn the truth - about herself, about the cause of the murder, and just how flippant some people take the rules - it becomes a matter of time before she gets into situations that nearly finish her tenure at Yale early, with herself in a body bag. 

Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo was published in October of 2019. The sequel, Hell Bent, was published in January 2023. Please check Youtube for my upcoming review of this novel.