“What makes Ninth House authentic is Bardugo's ability to mix the supernatural with everyday humanity and make it seem perfectly normal.”
It's not often one finishes reading a book only to immediately turn back to page one and start all over again. Ninth House, by Leigh Bardugo, is one such book. The story revolves around troubled Los Angeles valley girl, Galaxy "Alex" Stern and her new life as a freshman at Yale. While her non-existent GPA is far from the norm for incoming Ivy Leaguers, Alex has something no one else has. This talent gives her not only a free ride to the prestigious university, but also entrance to eight secret societies on campus.
Like all addictive protagonists, Alex is complicated. Her backstory weaves in and out of the main storyline, teasing the reader with snippets of her past. We see how and why she grew from a misunderstood and frightened teenager to a tough, streetwise young lady wanting to move on from the ghosts that haunt her. At Yale, Alex takes on a position at Lethe, an organization monitoring the activities of Yale's secret societies, and where her unique talent is a bonus.
New Haven native, Daniel Darlington reluctantly serves as Alex's guide. He shows her the intricacies of the hidden supernatural societies, often quoting snippets from The Life of Lethe, the ultimate reference book to Alex's new life. Hidden underneath his preppy attire and mannerisms, Darlington is smart and wary of Alex.
The back and forth banter between Alex and Darlington is brilliant. Bardugo hands out natural dialogue like she's lived with these characters for years, which no doubt, she has. The following excerpt is from chapter ten when they enter a room at a society Halloween party.
On the pews and in the aisles, bodies lay entwined, surrounded by crushed red petals.
"Now this is more like what I expected," said Alex.
"An orgy in a flower-filled cathedral?"
"That's what this night is all about."
Not to be outdone by Darlington, there's Dawes, grad student, and research assistant at Lethe. Dawes maintains her rigid following of Lethe protocol even as she dips her toes into the break-every-rule attitude of Alex Stern.
"What kind of sin are we talking about," said Alex. "Masturbation? Bad Grammar?
"You're in a graveyard," chided Dawes.
"Trust me, Dawes, the dead don't care."
What makes Ninth House authentic is Bardugo's ability to mix the supernatural with everyday humanity and make it seem perfectly normal. Here's an example, "Alex had two hours free after class, and she meant to spend them hidden away in her dorm room, eating her pilfered sandwiches and writing her report for Sandow, then sleeping through the basso belladonna crash before she went to her English lecture."
The secret societies, (The Houses of the Veil, The Ancient Eight) are home to the elite and brilliant, and members are invited to view rituals performed behind closed doors. A note for readers with a weak stomach: not a good idea to eat spaghetti and meatballs with marinara sauce before heading into chapter one.
Bardugo deepens the curiosity of the reader by occasionally dropping the names of real people, giving the story a touch of magical realism. When entering a house known for skills in the art of illusion, Darlington remarks to Alex, "Anderson Cooper is actually five foot four inches tall, weighs two bills, and talks with a knee-deep Long Island accent."
Within the story, Bardugo confronts addiction head-on. It's not pretty, but it's real. Kudos to her for not washing over the drug-related scenes and facing the trauma of death and loss among addicts. The filth, vomit, starvation, and prostitution are the perfect backdrop for Alex's character and serve as the clasp that links her past and present, her insight into human behavior amid the chaos of her pre-Yale days. "The survivor in her understood that there were men who liked to see other people grovel, like to push to see what humiliations the needs of others would allow."
While evil hovers within and below the Yale campus, one can't help but cheer for the fearless girl with the tatts, practical boots, and a fictitious GPA, while falling for Darlington and his love of facts and history.