Review: Ninth House (Alex Stern #1) by Leigh Bardugo

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.


What is Ninth House about?

Ninth House is about the underworld of Yale University, where Lethe House monitors and restricts the activities of the eight secret societies there. These societies deal in real magic, and that magic can be incredibly dangerous. Lethe House was founded to make sure unnecessary death and uncontrolled magic don’t happen. Alex Stern is a freshman at Yale and the current Dante of Lethe House, making her an apprentice training to monitor the activities of the societies. And she has a special gift: she can see Grays–ghosts. While other members of Lethe must consume an increasingly dangerous potion to see Grays and perform their duties, Alex was offered a fresh start, a scholarship, and a new life thanks to her surprising abilities. If only she could see and find her mentor, Darlington.

Genre: Dark Academia

I know, I know, Dark Academia is more of an aesthetic. The genre really should be Urban Fantasy, but c’mon. It’s literally Dark Academia incarnate.

Tropes: Rich People Have Too Much Freedom

Alex is a pretty self aware POV character, and even when we slip into Darlington’s POV we’re reminded that he didn’t have everything handed to him (just most things). I appreciated that in a story placed at an Ivy League and concerning the activities of secret societies filled with the wealthy and societal important, our main narrator is far from their social and wealth class.

Plot: Dead Men Tell Plenty O’ Tales

Much of the plot focus comes from Alex’s ability to see Grays, or ghosts. Alex is unique this in regard, and thus approaches the duties and work of Lethe House in a very different way. Especially when she no longer has her Virgil to guide her through the monitoring of and work with the landed societies.

The Good

I really enjoyed this book from the very beginning. I saw a lot of hype around it, but having not read anything by Bardugo before I was unsure what I was walking into. Right off the bat, I was surprised by Alex and by the setting. One huge thing I enjoyed is that Alex is both out of her league and appreciative of where she is. She knows there’s no way she would have ended up at Yale otherwise, and she doesn’t plan to mess that up, despite floundering in the new environment. But despite appreciating her new opportunities, Alex is also critical and aware of the privilege given to so many of those around her. She is ready to point out the hypocritical nature of rich white children doing fancy drugs at their fancy school while girls like her without opportunities are the ones selling the drugs and dying for it. I couldn’t help but enjoy her dedication to what is the founding idea of Lethe: protecting the underprivileged from the absurdly privileged. Beyond that, the writing is excellent, from beautiful descriptions to witty dialogue. The conception of magic is interesting and explored just enough to really get a sense of the world while also holding back enough for Alex to learn more. I like the way so much of the story is played close to the chest because that’s exactly how Alex operates. By incorporating flashbacks to explain her relationship with Darlington, we’re shown not told. And Darlington’s brief moments of POV are also incredibly interesting and a far better way to get to know him than just from what other characters say about him. All in all, this book was a series of smart and excellent writing decisions that combine for a really good reading experience.

The Okay

I’d say this book isn’t for the faint of heart. There are some seriously graphic scenes of violence, and some heavy topics at hand. Appropriate trigger warnings should be respected, and thus this book won’t suit everybody. If you like your fantasy to be light hearted and escapist, this book likely won’t appeal to you.

The Bad

I don’t know. I honestly don’t. I have no complaints from my reading experience of this book.

Final Thoughts

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, despite having little to low expectations going into it. I found it absorbing, the characters nuanced and interesting, the editing and writing creative and clever, and the ending climactic and intriguing. I thought the worldbuilding was interesting and well paced. The founding principles of Lethe, combined with the execution of its mission by various agents in the present, creates room for several interesting stories. Alex’s background, her joining of Lethe, and the way she operates there as Dante was interesting and well thought out. I like her as a character and I enjoyed so much of what she did and how she did it. I am absolutely hooked on this book, and so excited to read more of the story, the characters, and the world.

Have you read Ninth House? Share what you liked, and what you didn’t like, in the comments!

By Catherine

I'm a lover of books, coffee, wine, and bees. Happy to join the ranks of book bloggers everywhere!

2 replies on “Review: Ninth House (Alex Stern #1) by Leigh Bardugo”

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