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.”
You know sometimes you pick up a book with a beautiful cover just because it’s beautiful and you start reading without having read anything regarding the novel, neither synopsis nor review, then you become completely and utterly absorbed in the text? This was one of those. It’s almost as though in reading Fruit of the Drunken Tree by Ingrid Rojas Contreras (also available on Overdrive) the reader too gets sucked into the story, in its thrall as to the fruit of the drunken tree. Looking now, I see that it got a lot of rave reviews last year when it came out – it either all passed me by or I’ve forgotten about it – and now I understand why.
To sum up the story, it’s a coming-of-age story featuring two female voices through which perspectives we piece together as much of the story as is possible to do, an incomplete and fragmented picture as it can only be. This incompleteness is aided in part by one of the narrators being a child of 7, Chula, when she first starts the story in Bogotá, making what sense she can of the political situation in Colombia during the last years of Pablo Escobar through news reports. She becomes absorbed by the new household worker Petrona, 13 when she first begins working for Chula’s Mamá, wanting to learn everything she can about Petrona and conjuring different myths with her older sister Cassandra to explain Petrona’s silence (e.g. “We started to think that maybe Petrona was a poet or maybe someone under a spell. I didn’t tell Cassandra that in a certain light Petrona looked to me like a statue, that when she was still and quiet the folds of her apron seemed to me to harden into the stone draperies of church saints… I came up with saint names for Petrona” (Rojas Contreras, Fruit of the Drunken Tree, c.3)). And it’s through a similar layer of myth-making and larger-than-life projections that we encounter those outside of this women’s household consisting of Chula, Cassandra, Mamá, and Petrona: Papá; the guerillas, military, paramilitary, etc.; Pablo Escobar.
Based on the real life of Anita Hemmings, The Gilded Years is a fictionalized account of the first African-American woman to graduate from the prestigious Vassar College in 1897 (Vassar did not openly admit African-American students until the 1940s). Anita was able to do this because she was light skinned enough to pass as white and she kept this secret for three years. But during her senior year she fell in love with a Harvard student and her roommate became attracted to Anita’s equally fair skinned brother, both situations which would jeopardize everything she had accomplished so far.
She had the typical student experience, studying, socializing, and visiting friends but with the constant undercurrent that she was playing a part and keeping a secret that if discovered could get her expelled. She had to decide who she was, who she wanted to be and what was most important to her, which had no easy answers.
There is also a section that tells about the life of the real Anita Hemmings (with photo), her life before and at Vassar and what happened to her after leaving college.
I’ve read some articles from 2017 and 2018 reporting that this book will be made into a film called ‘A White Lie’ starring Zendaya and Reese Witherspoon but have not found more recent information about it.
As a fan of both school stories (whether day schools, boarding schools or college/ university) and historical fiction this book is a great mix of both!