Book review: ‘Ninth House’ by Leigh Bardugo

lots of spoilers!

I personally only read reviews after I’ve finished a book, in case there are spoilers. If I loved the book, I hope the reviews can show me even more nuance for me to love – and if I don’t like the book, I hate-read reviews. For this reason, I’m going to include massive spoilers because I figure that you’re here to hate-read this book (in comparison to the seemingly endless positive reviews she’s received from ‘official’ sources). 

I didn’t hate Ninth House. But I didn’t enjoy any of it either – and considering it’s around 450 pages in length (and I was reading on a Kindle which felt NEVER. ENDING.) I found myself wanting to skip whole chapters to get closer to the end. 

The skill that’s shown by some of the best fantasy authors (J.K.Rowling, Shauna McClemens to name a few) is to construct a world that feels realistic, and importantly, one that has rules which cannot be broken. ‘Ninth House’ is about magic, alchemy, and mystery – and for this reason, it should have a consistent magic system. 

As popularised by Brandon Sanderson, there are deemed to be two kinds of magic systems in literature: Hard and Soft. 

Here are two fantastic YouTube videos by Hello Future Me which delves into these systems in detail. But here’s a brief summary below:

A ‘hard magic system’ has clearly defined rules, consequences and limitations that govern what you can and can’t do with magic. For example, the Law of Equivalent Exchange. 

A ‘soft magic system’ has a vague, undefined and mysterious set of rules and limitations to being used (a good example being Gandalf in Lord of the Rings who is capable of seemingly endless magical ability, but which is never truly explained or limited)

‘Ninth House’ is a soft magic system masquerading as a hard magic system, which makes it frustrating as hell. Our protagonist, Alex has rocked up to Yale with a traumatic backstory and bad grades – the only reason she’s been given the chance to study there being that she has a seemingly natural ability to see ‘greys’ (ghosts), and her benefactor wants to use her to protect the eight houses of the Veil, which are secret societies of dark magic and the occult. She is part of the ninth house, Lethe. 

What do these houses stand for, you ask? No fucking clue. I had to look them up and even then I forgot numerous times because they sound so similar: ‘Book and Snake’, ‘Skull and Bones’, etc. Throughout the book, Alex comes into contact with various students from these houses, who all seem to have magical abilities or implements that allow them to do special things. And while there is a list of the houses at the BACK of the book (useless), as the story winds on, Bardugo simply adds new magical implements to the roster with no rhyme or reason. 

Suddenly, she can be pulled back from the brink of death by being dunked in a gold crucible at Lethe. Another house has a blue acolyte potion called ‘compulsion’ that turns you subservient (and of course, because it’s Yale, is used by the students as a date rape drug). Another house has a magic compact mirror (?) which shows a person the face of the last person captured. Why are these particular things part of particular houses? Still no idea. It felt like whatever hurdle Alex came across, she could simply ‘discover’ one of these magical items to save herself. 

This book was pegged as Bardugo’s transition from YA fantasy (to be fair, I’ve never read her other books) to dark adult fantasy – but in my opinion, it didn’t step into those bounds at all. The protagonist is 20 years old, which appears to be the main reason for this adjustment in genre, but she acts like a young teenager in pretty much every way. The book has sexual elements – often traumatic ones – but the way it is explored feels still YA to me. 

For example, this weird and unexpected encounter:

“Hey Tripp,” she said easily. “You got a minute?”
He turned her way. “You want to ask me to prom, Stern?”
“Depends. Gonna be a good little slut for me and put out?” Tripp’s friends whooped and one of them let out a long Ohhhh shit.

I’m not sure exactly why this gets my back up, but I think it’s because all of these highly sexual ‘jokes’ she makes are totally at odds to the rest of her character, and are ALL really unimaginative ‘quips’.

“And don’t grab me like that again. I may be shit, but I’m the kind that sticks.”

One of his hands was cupped over her breast, his thumb moving back and forth over her nipple with the lazy rhythmic sway of a cat’s tail. Alex felt her whole body flush. 
“Darlington,” she had snapped. 
“Mmmm?” he murmured against the back of her neck.
“Wake up and fuck me or cut that out.”

At this point, Alex and Darlington had barely spent any time together, let alone shown any sexual interest in each other. It’s really jarring. 

Alex as a protagonist is very unlikeable too, as she can be rude to her friends (Dawes in particular saves her life numerous times for little reward, and Alex lets Darlington be eaten in front of her) and callous too (enacting revenge on a date rapist by making him eat a toilet full of shit, filming it and spreading it around Yale). Which is unnecessary. But regardless of her personality, Bardugo is clearly intent on making her a ‘badass’ and ‘feminist figure’, as she continues to force metaphors of non-consensual magic and victim-blaming at the reader. Aside from the odd sexual quips, she also dispenses with really bizarre ‘wisdom’: “Even alligators have parents, Dawes. That doesn’t stop them from biting.” (???)

I would have given this book a one star, but for me the saving grace was a particular scene with Hellie. Alex’s trauma leads back to a night with her best friend who agrees to sleep with a group of men in order to obtain drugs, and is murdered. Alex wakes up in the morning and sees her friend, but it’s the moment that we also realise she can see greys. This particular scene was very well written in my opinion, and made me sad for the character: 

“Hellie was gone. But she wasn’t. Her body was lying on the mattress, on her back, a foot away, her tight T-shirt splattered with vomit, still and cold. Her skin was blue. How long had her ghost lain there waiting for Alex to wake? There were two Hellies in the room. There were no Hellies in the room.”

But the rest of it I can barely explain. It was bizarre and flimsy world-building and left me really confused. You’re thrust into this undercover magical world at Yale, with no context at first (the first chapter is Alex watching a man have his intestines removed and studied to tell the future, while greys try to get into the circle and ruin the ritual) and then no real explanation of what is going on afterwards. 

And the final nail in the coffin – the utter pet peeve for me and something that I’ve experienced before in the train wreck that was ‘The Last’ by Hanna Jameson (which I wrote a review about here) – was that the mysterious killer was unveiled to be someone who had only briefly been mentioned in the book earlier. In other words, as the readers we had no hope in hell of working it out ourselves. So where’s the fun?

Apparently there will be a TV/film about ‘Ninth House’, and Bardugo is continuing with her successful YA fantasy series. But I for one, won’t be spending any more time reading her work.

What do you think? Did you actually enjoy it? Fight me in the comments 🙂

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s