Tuesday 23 June 2020

#CBR12 Book 26: "Ninth House" by Leigh Bardugo

Page count: 476 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Official book description:
Galaxy “Alex” Stern is the most unlikely member of Yale’s freshman class. Raised in the Los Angeles hinterlands by a hippie mom, Alex dropped out of school early and into a world of shady drug dealer boyfriends, dead-end jobs, and much, much worse. By age twenty, in fact, she is the sole survivor of a horrific, unsolved multiple homicide. Some might say she’s thrown her life away. But at her hospital bed, Alex is offered a second chance: to attend one of the world’s most elite universities on a full ride. What’s the catch, and why her?

Still searching for answers to this herself, Alex arrives in New Haven tasked by her mysterious benefactors with monitoring the activities of Yale’s secret societies. These eight windowless “tombs” are well-known to be haunts of the future rich and powerful, from high-ranking politicos to Wall Street and Hollywood’s biggest players. But their occult activities are revealed to be more sinister and more extraordinary than any paranoid imagination might conceive.

Leigh Bardugo has become a popular name in YA fantasy, with her Grisha trilogy, the duology Six of Crows, as well as the Nikolai duology (which is still incomplete). This is her attempt of paranormal fantasy aimed at adults, and in case the black and grey cover left you in any doubt, it doesn't take long before the reader is made very aware that this book is "not for kids". Our protagonist, Galaxy "Alex" Stern has the rather unusual ability to see ghosts, which has mostly been a horrible burden throughout her life so far, making her a seemingly mentally unstable outcast who ended up hanging with the wrong crowd and numbing her senses with drugs just to get some peace.

Nevertheless, the sole survivor of a horrible multiple homicide in a sketchy drug den, Alex is given the opportunity to come to prestigious Yale, precisely because her ability to see and sense ghosts is useful to those in power there. There are nine secret magical societies at the university, and Alex is a member of Lethe, the one that "polices" the others. It's also the smallest of the societies, with hardly any members. The senior member, who trains the younger one, is known as Virgil. The younger member is Dante. Alex is the Dante to Daniel "Darlington" Arlington's Virgil, and they don't exactly have the warmest or friendliest of relationships. Unlike Alex, Darlington has to drink a special potion to see ghosts. The potion is both foul-tasting and can be lethal if over-used. There's also the fact that Darlington seems to come from a privileged and wealthy background, while Alex was pretty much literally living on the streets before she got the chance to come to Yale. There's also Dawes, the shy research assistant who seems infatuated with Darlington and rather hostile towards Alex.

The book's plot is not told chronologically. The prologue is set in early spring, while other chapters are set in the autumn and winter, with alternating POVs from Alex and Darlington. It's clear from the prologue that Alex in the spring is in a pretty bad place, so it's going to be quite the ride to figure out how she ended up in such a tight spot.

As well as introducing us to some very interesting world-building, with a lot of creepy supernatural stuff going on, there is a murder mystery to be solved. A young girl is murdered on the Yale campus, and while a lot of people seem to brush it off as a lovers' quarrel gone wrong, Alex knows that there's more to the story and keeps poking her nose into places it doesn't belong.

As I mentioned in my first paragraph, while Bardugo has previously written for teens, this book is much darker and more serious, complete with all sorts of adult themes. I was surprised at how gory and f**ked up it got, on occasion. I should probably also add that while the main mystery of the story is solved at the end, there is very much a cliff-hanger sort of a feel to the ending, with the purpose of the sequel very much established. I'm already looking forward to seeing where Alex ends up next.

Judging a book by its cover: I know I finished the book about three months ago, but I'm trying to remember if there was a snake prominently featured in the story at any point, and coming up blank. I think the snake may have been put on the cover to create a cool visual, and I do like the black on black, with the grey font. It may be that the snake is a metaphor I'm too stupid to have understood, of course.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

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