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.”