4/5 stars on Goodreads
|Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo|
Ninth House is the first book for adults by the highly popular (YA) fantasy author Leigh Bardugo, and her first that is set in the contemporary world. It’s not a non-fantasy book, however, but full of magic and ghosts. Despite the hype, it’s not Bardugo’s best work, and I’m not entirely sure I would call it adult fiction, despite the themes of abuse, addiction and rape among other things. Characters are more immature than in her books labelled for young adult, and the story and the stakes are lighter.
Galaxy Stern, Alex, has seen ghosts her entire life, which has brought nothing but trouble for her, because the only way she is able to block them out is with drugs. Her life is a complete mess before she is twenty and then a violent attack sends her to a hospital. There she is given a chance to change all that. She is offered a place to study in Yale. Magic is abundant there and to make sure the secret societies wielding it don’t abuse their powers, there is a society to oversee them, and they need Alex’s skills.
For a person who hasn’t been to school since she was twelve, Alex manages to make a passable effort at being a student, although most of her time is taken by Lethe and her duties in overseeing the magical societies. For a person who has recently survived a brutal attack that left her best friend dead, Alex functions surprisingly well. And for a person who has used drugs all her life, she does perfectly fine without them now.
Alex’s personal struggles aren’t the main focus of the story, however. There are several mysteries that need solving. The most important of them is a murder investigation that Alex can’t give up despite orders to otherwise. Another mystery deals with a disappearance of her tutor, which is unravelled slowly in chapters from his point of view. And then there is a murder mystery from a century and a half ago that a ghost makes Alex investigate.
The mysteries are not simultaneous, but the narrative presents them at the same time. The story starts in the present with a teaser of what has taken place so far, and then jumps back and forth between two earlier points in time, plus Alex’s life before Yale, until reaching the present again, where all the mysteries are solved. It takes a little getting used to, but after that the pace of the book keeps good with no slack or unnecessary side-plots.
Despite the focus on solving crimes, the book doesn’t feel like a thriller or crime fiction. Stakes are constantly high for Alex, with violence and the possibility of losing her spot in the college looming over her, yet the urgency doesn’t really make itself felt. Partly it has to do with the non-linear narrative; just as the reader is invested in one story-line, the narrative jumps to a different time; and partly it has to do with Alex waffling about with no clear focus until the murder investigation takes up all her time. It’s a ghost story, a story about magic and abuse of power, and homage to the author’s alma mater.
Yet the story compels. The mysteries are suitably mysterious and the final showdown is nothing I had anticipated. There are no cop-outs or easy solutions. And there is a good build-up for the next book too, so I have to assume one is in the making. All in all, a good story, if not a great book.