For as long as she can remember, Alex Stern has been able to see ghosts. For most of her life it has been an inconvenience at best, but now it has gotten her a fresh start in life and a free ride to one of the most prestigious colleges in the world.
Last summer Alex woke up in a hospital bed after surviving a horrific attack at her home. There she is visited by Dean Elliot Sandow; he knows about her ability to see ghosts and he wants to offer her a position in one of the nine houses, secret societies on Yale’s campus.
Eight of the houses are essentially fraternities, run by the children of the rich and powerful – who were themselves members of these houses. Within these groups, members perform magical rituals: some predict the future, others change themselves into animals. In one Alex witnesses a famous musician undergoing a ritual to sing more beautifully.
The ninth house, Lethe, serves as a watchdog for these other houses. Lethe makes sure their rituals do not get out of hand and that the societies do not reveal themselves to the general public. Alex’s abilities will make her a valuable asset in this group.
All of the members have their own part to play within Lethe. Alex is an apprentice member, working under the direction of Darlington – Daniel Arlington – an upperclassman known and respected around campus. Darlington went missing earlier in the year when Alex saw him pulled into a portal to hell. Alex is driven to bring him back, despite everyone telling her that he is dead.
Lethe also has an Oculus, someone dedicated to recording and gathering information, and the Centurion, a member of the local police who can alert them if a crime scene seems magical or cover up something that the houses will deal with on their own.
Initially, Alex feels isolated in this group. Darlington is jealous of her innate ability to see ghosts. Pamela Dawes, the Oculus, seems offended by Alex’s presence. And the Centurion, Detective Turner, suspects that Alex may have been involved in the grisly murder she escaped in California.
Alex herself is difficult to get along with. She actively opposes the polite facade that has kept the balance between the houses and she is disgusted by the rich kids who play with magic without understanding the dangers. Back in California she was a high school dropout with an abusive drug dealer boyfriend. She knows this is an entirely different world, but she refuses to bow to its conventions.
Midway through her first semester, Alex is sent to the scene of a possible homicide. A young woman from New Haven has been found murdered. Detective Turner is eager to turn Alex away, the woman and her boyfriend are known criminals and he is already in custody, but Alex cannot shake the feeling that something is off.
As she follows up on her suspicions, Alex uncovers a string of similar murders going back decades. And if these are some kind of secret ritual gone wrong, Alex is going to get to put a stop to it.
Bardugo is an expert at crafting a satisfying antihero, Alex is a protagonist that the reader cannot entirely trust. She is complicated, secretive, and more likely to punch someone in the gut than walk away. Alex has had a hard life, but she will do anything to protect her friends – whatever the cost.
Leigh Bardugo’s NINTH HOUSE is a bit of a puzzle box. The novel jumps around through time; flashing back to scenes from Alex’s training with Darlington and keeping certain details hidden from the reader until just the right moment. There are layers of mysteries that build over the course of the story. Most of those mysteries are concluded by the end of the book; others are resolved in Hell Bent, the sequel that came out earlier this year.
Book review by Alyssa Berry, Technical Services Librarian