If you’ve ever read YA, you’re probably at least passingly familiar with Leigh Bardugo, author of the Shadow and Bone and Six of Crows series (collectively called the Grishaverse). Ninth House, her newest book, is Bardugo’s first foray into the “adult” category—and boy, she was not playing around with that categorization. Readers might need a stronger stomach than they’re used to with her previous work, and should be aware that there are elements that some readers might find triggering (there was a whole online discussion about this before the book even came out). While Ninth House might be a little too “adult” for some of her younger readers, Bardugo is no stranger to dark subject matter. If any Six of Crows fans remember Kaz’s backstory (or any of their backstories, but Kaz’s was the worst), they’ll know what I mean. In fact, one of the biggest criticisms of Six of Crows was that the characters being teens made no sense at all. So really, one could argue that she’s been writing adult this whole time, just disguising it under the YA banner.
With Ninth House, Bardugo relishes her opportunity to dig into the gritty, ugly real world with some magical touches. The story concerns the eight “ancient” secret societies of Yale—Lethe, our home base, is the extra secret, eponymous ninth. Lethe is tasked with overseeing the magic of the others, ensuring nothing goes astray. But of course, go astray things must. What’s interesting about Bardugo’s take on magic is that it patently does not make up for the ugliness of reality—it’s not an escape, it’s just another realm in which ugly things happen. In fact, Bardugo very purposefully crafted anti-heroine Alex—and the use of magic in general—as a “what if”. What if magic was real, and gifted only to a select group of already privileged people in New Haven? What if a trauma survivor was gifted this magic as well? The magic of Yale is used to explore very real topics, so that in the midst of all the ghosts and fantastical party drugs there are very real issues of assault, power plays, and murder. “You cannot write a story about magic, which is essentially going to operate as a commodity,” Barudgo said in a Time interview, “without exploring the kind of damage that we could do to each other if this were actually in play.”
This includes classism, of course, but also issues related to the #MeToo movement. At one point, Alex admonishes a female character for trying to use feminism to handwave horrific acts, which seems like a commentary on the unfortunate byproduct of any social movement: the co-opting of social trends for one’s own self-serving purposes. Similarly, Alex is not instantly cured of her past trauma because she now understands her own magical abilities. Rather, her trauma informs all of her actions at Yale. She’s still herself, only now she has access to magic. This doesn’t always spell success for Alex, but it wouldn’t be a fair (or believable) narrative for someone with Alex’s history to suddenly metamorphosize into a responsible, well-adjusted person because of her association with Yale.
All of this heavy talk might put you off the book, but if you’re looking for spooky magic in a moody New England setting, this book will scratch that itch. The setting is richly detailed and evocative, and it’s not just thanks to extensive research. Bardugo herself is a Yale grad, and was part of the Wolf’s Head secret society. No, the societies do not actually deal any sort of magic (or do they…?), but in the setting of old world academia, old world wealth, and old world values, it’s easy to believe they do. The magic in Ninth House is enticing, in that it’s the kind that feels totally at home in the secret societies of Yale, with names like Skull and Bones, Book and Snake, Sage and Chalice, among others. Think lots of life-death boundary crossing, society parties held in labyrinthine tombs, shadowy portals, and above all, ghosts. Bardugo recently embarked on an atmospheric, aesthetically appropriate tour for the book; a tour which was hosted in stone university buildings and old churches.
While I can’t call Ninth House Bardugo’s best work (that honour still belongs to the stellar Six of Crows), it’s a complex, conversation-starting addition to her lineup of fantasy stories. While her previous work is solid entertainment (Netflix is currently producing a TV series set in the Grishaverse), Ninth House hits the scene like a kick in the face and demands that you reckon with it. It won’t be for everyone, but that’s not a bad thing! It appears to be the first in a series, so expect more spooky adventures in the future. Here’s hoping fan favourite Darlington makes an appearance in the second one.