Thursday, October 31, 2019

Review: Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo

Ninth House (Alex Stern, #1)
Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo
Flatiron Books
Publication Date: October 8th, 2019
Hardcover. 458 pages

About Ninth House:

"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."

Ninth House is shaping up to be a difficult book to review because it's a rather complex and hard to describe book in itself. My very first reaction upon diving into this book was how different it was from what I expected it to be. I tend to prefer going into books without having too much prior knowledge so that I can experience everything firsthand, but I did still have some expectations of what this book might be like and what it actually was and the reality was simply not what I expected.

This fits the general mold of 'dark academia' in a lot of ways: college campus setting, secret societies, a mix of dark and twisty characters, some hints at magic and other crafty ideas. What keeps it from being a true 'dark academia' book in my opinion, however, is that there is very little in the way of 'academic' at all. The learning and education portion of this book in the regard of Alex studying at Yale was minimal and hardly even part of the main plot points; however, her education in learning about the various secret societies that do exist at Yale was full force throughout the book, so it all really depends on what sort of 'academics/learning' you want from a dark academia book.

Ninth House, for me, absolutely has a slow start. It took me quite a while to fully get into the story and there were a few times when I wondered if I would ever actually get into it and want to keep reading. Fortunately, there were enough hints and foreshadowing that kept me wanting to know what was going to happen and wanting to explore more about these characters and the general setting and plot, so I kept reading and I'm really glad I did. There's a lot of info-dumping, but if you can make it through that then there's a lot more to explore as well.

Alex Stern is a particularly compelling character who seemed to always be full of surprises. I liked how Bardugo managed to develop her in such a layered and multi-dimensional manner--she has a past full of bad experiences that have shaped who she is today, and although those experiences do sometimes control her present and future actions, she does seem to develop throughout the course of the book and learn how to use her past in ways that can benefit her and improve who she is as a person. I didn't personally like or connect with Alex as much as I'd hoped, but she's still definitely a character I can root for and enjoy reading about.

Another prominent character we meet is Darlington, whom I absolutely loved. I wish he had more page time in this book, but unfortunately we really only get to spend a few chapters here and there with him via flashbacks. He's one of those scholarly and somewhat gentlemanly characters that has a rather sophisticated manner of dressing and utterly charming personality despite the fact that he's not always necessarily overly friendly. There's also Dawes, another member of their society that I found really interesting. She's quiet and seems to prefer to work on her studies alone without human interaction (which I wholeheartedly relate to), but she also seems charmingly loyal and manages to always be around when needed. There also Detective Turner who I ended up really liking! He's a huge pain in the ass at times, but he also really does seem to be a 'good guy' and I liked exploring his roe and relationship with Alex throughout the book.

There is also a rather unique magic system--or rather, systems? This is a book that works with magic that is dark and weird and wildly varied while also being incredibly intriguing. I wish so badly that we had been able to explore more than just a few main secret societies and their magic rather than focusing on a select few. I understand that the book couldn't be made unnecessarily long just for that, but I just wish there was a bit more in that regard to explore.

As Bardugo has repeatedly warned, this is indeed a decidedly dark story with plenty of disturbing and violent things occurring within it. I'm not sure why there had to be so much drama and controversy before this book came out with people getting upset about some of its content when there was explicit warnings about said darkness, but alas, it happened anyway. I personally loved that Bardugo took this book into such dark places while also doing so with a clear intent and relevant purpose within the story--it's not dark for the sake being dark, but rather has an important message of some sort behind it that translates well into the plot of the story and motivations and actions of characters involved. She handles all of the topics with maturity and a deft hand.

In all, I really enjoyed this book and almost everything about it, but I did struggle a bit with the basic plot. I honestly wasn't overly interested in the 'murder mystery' sort of setup and I wish that there had been something slightly different at play. This is also partly because I had some reservations about the ending where things I wanted/expected didn't quite add up to what happened, so it's one that I'm still considering and trying to figure out how I really feel about it.

Overall, I've given Ninth House four stars!

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