Grungy magic is the best kind of magic. Grungy, dirty, street-side magic — hard-earned, poorly understood, wild and dangerous. I have little use these days for old beardos in pointy wizard hats, for powerful ancient necromancers or prancing elves.
Give me a ritual for an unbreakable pre-nup. A glamor to cloud the minds of security guards. A haruspex up to his elbows in blood, scrying the guts of a schizophrenic stolen from his bed in a New Haven reading buy and hold orders for the NASDAQ. Give me a troubled girl (read: violent girl, ex-junkie girl, and a small-time drug dealer, too) who can see ghosts walking the streets of L.A., snatched out of obscurity, from near death by a mysterious cabal of powerful people who want to trade her a second chance at a decent life for the temporary use of her abilities — to keep watch over the bloody, mystical, dangerous activities of the secret societies who surreptitiously control the fates of nations, markets, the world.
This is Ninth House, the first adult novel by YA bestseller Leigh Bardugo. The girl is Galaxy "Alex" Stern. And where she ends up is Yale, to join Lethe, the eponymous Ninth House which oversees the rituals and gatherings of the eight other "Houses of the Veil" — the so-called secret societies that practice there — Skull and Bones, Berzelius, Scroll and Key, the rest. Because in Bardugo's version of Yale the societies all exist around a particular school of powerful magic. Some raise the dead. Some can forge unbreakable contracts. Skull and Bones can read the future of the stock market in blood and guts.
Problem is, none of them are ... perfect at it. Their rituals attract ghosts. Sometimes things go wrong. Magic escapes, snaps around town like electricity. And all these preppy monsters in their knotted scarves and top-siders need someone to clean up their messes.
That's what Lethe does, what it's done for decades. It's why Alex Stern — sans trust fund, two bras to her name, a high school dropout raised by a hippie mom in California — catches their attention. Because for as long as she can remember, Alex has been able to see ghosts ("Grays" as they're called in New Haven), which is something that no other member of Lethe can do.
Ninth House is a lot of things. Its emotional superstructure is a fish-out-of-water story — the girl from nowhere trying to make it through her freshman year at Yale, where everyone is from somewhere. Alex has classes that she doesn't feel smart enough for, roommates that she doesn't feel rich enough for, the wrong clothes, the wrong tastes, the wrong past. And Bardugo lives believably in this first skin, this initial level of ugly duckling strangeness that is familiar to anyone who has ever gone anywhere or done anything new. But then there's Yale itself, which comes with its own (very real) history and fiercely local custom, language, vibe. And the secret Yale with its own (half-real) tombs and societies, safe houses and magic. Bardugo knows the first because she went to Yale. She knows the territory she's walking us through.
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The second is the place where the real and the fantastic blur, where they rub up against each other in her head. Where a simple story of a girl who sees ghosts trying to find her way in a new place that's full of them becomes a mystery, a criminal procedural, a thriller done in shades of Connecticut ice and houndstooth privilege. Because Alex doesn't get long to settle in before there's a murder on campus: Tara Hutchins. Just some girl, stabbed to death by her boyfriend.
She's town, Alex hears. Not her problem. Nothing to do with the campus, the societies, their rituals or, therefore, Lethe.
But she can't let it go. That girl? She reminds Alex too much of her friends who didn't make it out. Too much of herself, if she hadn't gotten the offer from Yale while she lay in a hospital bed — the chance to wipe out the past, get a fresh start.
What follows is a spiraling helix of a story — a twisty (and twisted) flash-back/flash-forward see-saw that balances three central and interlinked mysteries. There's the question of what happened to Tara, the question of what happened to Alex that put her on this path in the first place (a bloody and ragged little story that gets pieced out bit by bit and is nothing like you'll expect it to be — right up until it becomes obvious exactly what it is), and the question of what Alex did to end up alone, without allies, poking around the murder of some town girl. There are powers at Yale who want it to be simple, ugly reality: just a girl killed by a boyfriend too high to know what he was doing. But Alex knows better.
The stories all come together in the end — a swirl of blood and heartbreak, fentanyl and magic. But in the middle of it all stands Galaxy Stern, the girl who sees ghosts. And for all the good work that Bardugo does in crafting a believable alternate world where Yale's secret societies work powerful magic to alter the course of fortunes and history, it is Alex that makes Ninth House so readable. She is as disbelieving as any of us, as innocent, as skeptical, as furious. She is equal parts hard and soft, vulnerable and powerful. She may see ghosts, but she doesn't understand magic — real, nasty, visceral magic. And in Ninth House, Bardugo gives us the chance to see it all — the real and the imagined versions of Yale, the rich, the powerful, those they prey on — through Alex Stern's eyes.
Just another girl who doesn't think she belongs.
Jason Sheehan knows stuff about food, video games, books and Starblazers. He is currently the restaurant critic at Philadelphia magazine, but when no one is looking, he spends his time writing books about giant robots and ray guns. Tales From the Radiation Age is his latest book.
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