Leigh Bardugo brings dark magic to a university setting in “Ninth House”

Bardugo delves deep into Yale’s eerie secret societies in her latest novel, covering heavy themes of abuse and grief while preserving the book’s magical allure.


Photo courtesy Left Bank Books

Eva Pace, Life Editor

Anyone familiar with Leigh Bardugo likely discovered her writing through her wildly successful “Shadow and Bone” book series that was published back in 2012. When my preteen-self delved into that trilogy,  I quickly discovered that Bardugo set a precedent of extraordinarily developed character backgrounds and sweeping emotion throughout her plotlines. “Ninth House” is the debut novel of her “Alex Stern” series, which was released at the end of 2019 and most definitely did not compromise that reputation. 

Thirsty for the same 2 A.M. fantasy novel binges I fancied in middle school, I was eager to let Bardugo’s newest story take over my winter break. The protagonist, Galaxy Stern, is a freshman at Yale University but finds herself isolated from the rest of her classmates by her past. She doesn’t sport the same Vineyard Vines crewnecks, leather boat shoes or have the same elite upbringing that dominates campus — on the contrary, she’s a 20-year-old high school dropout from L.A.

 Her golden ticket to such a prestigious university was something that none of her peers could ever emulate — she can see ghosts. These haunting horrors, called Grays, are everywhere. They’re drawn in by the pure vivacity of life that pervades throughout college campuses, whether it’s the chaos of a fraternity basement or students stuffing their faces with tasty food at a dining hall. These Grays are the focal point of Yale’s eight secret societies, like Scroll and Key and Skull and Bones, which perform dark and occult rituals to bring glory and power to their respective organizations. Galaxy, or Alex, has been recruited to Lethe — a watchdog alliance that is supposed to keep the other Houses of the Veil in line. In exchange for her skills and the promise to keep silent about her involvement, Lethe offers Alex a full ride to Yale and away from her haunted past.

The book continually switches back and forth between winter and late spring, allowing us to see the full picture of Alex’s past as well as her current tribulations behind Yale’s foreign and magical gates. 

Winter begins with Alex’s introduction to her dorm and Yale’s campus, and we also get to meet an upperclassman named Darlington. Darlington is the so-called “golden boy” of Lethe, and he generously takes the standoffish Alex under his wing to share his knowledge of the occult and the secretive spells mastered by each of the eight houses. 

In the spring, everything comes to the forefront for Alex. We see both her patience and abilities put to the test as a girl is murdered, friends go missing and Grays start lingering around more than usual. Alex is forced to question everyone she once trusted when she arrived at Yale, and in a sudden burst of morality she finds herself determined to find out if one of the societies was truly responsible for the teen’s death. In these fragments of the novel we get to know Pamela Dawes, the “Oculus” of Lethe. She is what I would describe as a stoic nerd, spending most of her time laboriously writing thesis papers at the library. Her reserved nature is a clear character foil to the chaos Alex brings to the group, but they make a dynamic duo that is one of the strongest in the novel. 

This books campus setting made it all too easy for me to immerse myself in the alternate reality that Bardugo so masterfully executed in “Ninth House.” I felt like a kid again — reading until I could barely keep my vision in focus, totally encapsulated by the protagonist’s youthful energy and sarcastic flair. With that being said, this is most definitely a dark book that discusses incredibly triggering themes and events for a novel that is labeled as YA, so it is important to be in a safe headspace if you think you’d be vulnerable to some of the topics covered in the novel’s 500-or-so pages. 




Now, onto the good stuff. Darlington was introduced in the beginning of the novel as a potentially prime example of Bardugo’s talent for character-building, and then she completely pulled him from the plotline by writing up his tragic disappearance during a spell gone wrong. He was gone. Poof. There has to be more to his star-studded, elite phenotype, right? But alas, Bardugo pulled him out of the dialogue, and all of my excitement about delving deeper into Darlington’s past went entirely unsatiated. Fingers crossed, he’ll come back to us in the next book in the series. 

While Darlington’s absence was definitely disappointing, it did set us up to get to know Dawes’s quirky persona a little bit better. The mama-bear relationship Dawes has with Lethe as a whole but especially with Alex was a heartwarming reprieve from the serious topics covered in the rest of the book. With that being said, I still feel like I know basically nothing about Dawes’ past or how she got involved with the society, so I would love to see that covered in the next installment of the series. 

So, about the ending. I’ve read a bunch of “Ninth House” reviews so far and it seems like we all have come to the same conclusion– it is super drawn out. Critics argue that the entire novel could have been covered in 100 pages, and while I enjoyed every second that I was wrapped up in Bardugo’s magical rendition of Yale, I agree. It seemed a bit cliché to throw in the ‘whodunnit’ and include Alex’s oh-so-innocent professor as the pivotal plotline villain. With Harry Potter-esque flair, Alex was (of course) the only victim capable of escaping Daisy’s deathwish and reducing her to dust.

I will admit that I did find it gratifying to be able to put a label on Alex’s magical abilities after her heart-to-heart with Daisy, and that self discovery was enough to blur over the not-so-great parts of the ending. Overall, did I enjoy coming along with Alex to connect the dots about this murder case? Yes. But did it take her a painstakingly long time to do it? Absolutely. 

If you’re looking for the kind of book that brings drama comparable to any Netflix original series, leaving you helpless to stop turning the page, Bardugo will always deliver. Get a head start on your resolution to read more in 2020 and pick up “Ninth House” at the Vanderbilt Bookstore.