Some books you pick up, thinking What is all the fuss about, then? It’s a name that you spot time and time again on Blogs, Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram… an author that you have become aware of… a hype and chatter that has crossed your path.
And so often, it is disappointing: you often read that hyped up book and you wonder whether it was the same book that everyone else was raving about.
But not this one.
I loved it!
A sort of cross between The Secret History and Sixth Sense, the novel is exceptionally well structured, immersive and compelling. It is perhaps a masterclass in credible and believable adult low fantasy.
The novel revolves around – and is carried by the character of Alex Stern, our primary point-of-view character and a freshman at Yale. I did have too double check that I knew what a freshman was! A first year university student. Only Alex is unlike the usual freshmans (freshmen?) – Alex is unlike the usual freshman: she did not have an academic background; she was a school drop out; she was part of the seedy underbelly of society involved in drug dealing, violence and abuse.
So how did she score a place in Yale? She had the ability to see ghosts and Yale was home to eight secret societies who practised in magic and explored and exploited the uncanny – which, by the way, in the German unheimlich is one of my favourite words – and the eponymous Ninth House, Lethe, held a role as overseer cum policeman cum health and safety executive to ensure that the Ancient Eight houses did not cause too much injury: no more dead hobos!
Alas, one more dead body (albeit of a young town girl, Tara Hutchins, rather than a hobo) is discovered and Alex starts her own uncanny investigation, alongside and in parallel to the police investigation led by Detective Abel Turner.
Bardugo plays a lot with the timeline: the prologue takes place perhaps only a few days before the finale and conclusion of the novel! The investigation of Hutchins’ death propels the Winter chapters, which alternate with Last Fall, recounting Alex’s introduction to Yale, Lethe and the magical houses. Within this, though, we also have Alex’s backstory woven in: dark hints of something terrible – of a range of terrible things – happening to her as a child, as a students, as a vulnerable teenage girl. We learn early on that she was discovered somehow alive and unscathed, in the midst of horrific carnage which claimed the lives of three others. That story is revealed so carefully over the first half of the narrative.
Bardugo clearly has immense fun and a blast imagining the rituals of the various houses: the first piece of magic we see is a prognostication from Skull and Bones, where a living man is cut open and his entrails explored for hints of the future
Alex glanced at the man on the table: Michael Reyes. She’d read his file two weeks ago, when he was selected for the ritual. The flaps of his stomach were pinned back with steel clips and his abdomen looked like it was blooming, a plump pink orchid, plush and red at its center. Tell me that doesn’t leave a mark.
Alex eyed the Bonesmen, robed and hooded, crowded around the body on the table, the undergrad Scribe taking down the predictions that would be passed on to hedge-fund managers and private investors all over the world to keep the Bonesmen and their alumni financially secure. Former presidents, diplomats, at least one director of the CIA—all of them Bonesmen.
Yale – considering the Bardugo is an alumnus of it – does not come out of the novel well: it is populated by the rich, the privileged, the entitled. None of them really seem to deserve the vast magical power available to them. Abusive as individuals and as a system – with the exception of our heroes: Alex Stern herself, the gentlemanly Darlington and the bookish Dawes.
The geography and place of Yale and New Haven was lovingly and credibly created, Bardugo intertwining her fictional fantasy with real factual locations and structures: Skull and Bones, Manuscript, Aurelian, Scroll and Key, Book and Snake, Wolfs Head are all real secret societies (insofar as you can be a secret society and have a Wikipedia entry) and Bardugo herself was in Wolf’s Head albeit (probably) with significantly less therianthropy than is suggested in the novel!
The novel is not without its issues and the unsympathetic nature of the characters outside Lethe is one of them. Another is the huge suspension of disbelief required to accept that Alex survived the ordeal of her childhood and of addiction sufficiently to be credible as the clean student she appears to be. It was a suspension I was willing to make because of the rolling pace of the novel but the gulf between Last Fall and Winter – the space of a handful of weeks – was a little strained. I also found the sexual violence (some towards a child Alex) within the novel both unnecessary and uncomfortable. In one scene, Alex’s roommate is drugged – with a magical drug – and abused by Blake Keely, with echoes of the People v Turner and both the incident and Alex’s response to it jarred.
That said, Bardugo’s conclusion was satisfying enough. It was a little heavy handed perhaps and fitted a number of tropes – Alex who had hidden her tattoos and her true given name of Galaxy – and the revelations were fairly predictable but there were still elements that took me by surprise. Alex’s story seems to be fairly complete now, but Darlington – the gentleman of Lethe, missing in action and possibly exiled to Hell – has been set up as the focus of the sequel – apparently due in 2021.
Plot / Pace: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
Date: 8th October 2019