Huge thanks to Gollancz for sending me a review copy of Ninth House!
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.
Trigger warnings: drug abuse and overdose, sexual abuse, child rape, date rape/rape under the influence, violence, blood, gore, suicide, self harm. Ninth House is not a YA book, it is very much adult merging into horror. Please be aware of all of this before reading it!
You know when you’ve been so excited for a book for such a long time, and then it arrives and you’re really worried that you’d been too excited and it won’t end up living up to your expectations? Well, I’m ver glad to say that Ninth House is not one of those books.
Take courage – no one is immortal.
I’ve always had mixed feelings about dark academia style books, however, what made Ninth House so different for me is that Alex is (in non-paranormal ways, anyway,) an ordinary girl from a poorer background with a ‘bad’ past. I’m bored of reading about snobby rich kids playing with magic, joining cults that they don’t understand, and being able to buy their way out of any complications that their little experiments cause. Ninth House was a breath of fresh air; give me more books about the Alex Stern’s of the world finding their way in a world of magic that they’ve been pulled into, born into, and can’t escape. Not only are the rich boys not the main characters in Ninth House, they’re definitely not the good guys either, and some big themes throughout the book are the abuse of power dynamics and privilege that the upper class wield.
It seems like readers have viewed Alex as a sort of marmite character, but I absolutely loved her from the start. You know those girls who you can’t decide if you want to be or be with? That’s Alex Stern. She’s no nonsense, she’s still learning and although she’s definitely a morally grey character she fights for what she believes is right, she refuses to be anybody’s pawn, and she’s experienced so many traumas and now she’s determined to save other girls from going through hell and back. I think something that doesn’t seem to be mentioned much in blurbs of this book is that Alex can see ghosts, or Greys as they’re called in the book, which is how she becomes useful to the secret societies of Yale.
The chapters switch between last fall, winter and spring, and in some of these seasons we meet Darlington, Alex’s guide to Lethe (the society she’s been recruited by). Darlington’s an intriguing character who we don’t actually learn much about but definitely grow to love. He seems like the stereotypical rich boy you’d expect, but his personality goes so much deeper than that. I really hope we get more of him in the sequel. Ninth House also had a strong cast of secondary characters, from mum-figure Dawes who I couldn’t help but love and want to protect, to some ghostly figures as well as people emerging from Alex’s past in flash backs. All of the characters involved definitely seemed to invoke strong emotions and I think it would be hard to go away from any of them without having an opinion on them either way – they’re definitely love or hate creations rather than someone you could just have mixed thoughts on. Saying this, I think it’s important to note that no characters in this are perfect, but they are real.
Having never been to an elite US College (or the US at all) I still found it very easy to follow the world building and picture Alex’s Yale and her haunts. New Haven is obviously a place that holds meaning to Leigh as it does to Alex and Darlington, and this really shines through and enhances the horrors that take place around the campus and the town.
There were always excuses for why girls died.
I really can’t say much about the story whilst keeping this spoiler free, but I will say it is intoxicating. I honestly couldn’t put this book down. Alex’s world merges the dark and the decadent, the horrors of her past helping her to uncover the mysteries she faces in the present. The majority of the main plot line follows the murder of a girl on campus, and despite being given multiple possible culprits throughout the book, the ending was completely unpredictable. As well as dealing with many occult issues, Alex also has to face problems to do with her less supernatural roommates and mother, and these little bits of a normal twenty year old’s college life just give both Alex and the story so much more depth.
A note on the trigger warnings – I think it’s important to pay attention to these if you’re planning on reading this and any of them may affect you. However, I will say that they didn’t bother me enough for me to put the book down despite some being issues that are very close to my heart. I’ve seen people accuse Leigh of using some of them for shock value, and have to disagree as all played important parts in the story and within the overall message. Although it may not be being marketed as such, Ninth House is fuelled by feminism, and so many of the more difficult aspects it deals with come from the heart of that. As I say though, please do be wary going in if you think reading about those topics may affect you. As much as I loved this book, it definitely won’t be to everyone’s tastes.
I have long been a fan of Leigh’s YA books, and I have to say, after Ninth House, I think I’m even more excited for her future adult fiction novels. I cannot wait for the sequel!