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Ninth House

November 7, 2019

Reading Leigh Bardugo’s new supernatural mystery novel Ninth House, set in New Haven, at Yale, and in the secret societies of the college, is the most fun I’ve had with a book in ages.

Even the circumstances started out as fun—the first thing I read after waking up one otherwise ordinary morning was an email from a book blogger friend, Jill at Rhapsody in Books, alerting me to the fact that I needed to read Ninth House because of all the necromancy. I do so like starting the day with someone catering to my special interests.

And yes, wow, this novel wins a prize for the greatest number of dead people raised and communicating with the living in any novel I’ve read so far (see my list of books with necromancy).

In this version of Yale, a dean named Sandow works with the students of Lethe House, which is in charge of overseeing the use of magic by the other eight secret societies: “There had been casualties following prognostications before, though only one since Lethe had been founded in 1898 to monitor the societies.” The actions of the novel take place in a world in which “grays—ghosts—were harmless. Mostly. It took a lot for them to take any kind of form in the mortal world.” The main character is Alex, who can see ghosts without the help of an elixir. She got a full scholarship to Yale because of this ability, and has been working with another student, Daniel Arlington, who everyone calls Darlington. Before the novel begins, though, Darlington has disappeared; this is one of the mysteries. Another of the mysteries is what happened to Alex before she was recruited by Sandow for Yale—all we know initially is that “she’d been found naked and comatose at a crime scene, next to a girl who hadn’t been lucky enough to survive the fentanyl they’d both taken.” The biggest mystery, however, is what’s scaring the local ghosts and how their fear might be related to a recent murder in New Haven. As Alex, Sandow, Darlington, and another student from Lethe, Dawes, work to unravel the mystery of the murder, other things start unraveling, and we find that the “secondary mission” of Lethe is to “unravel the mysteries of what lay beyond the Veil.”

The rules of the supernatural in this novel correspond interestingly to the rules in other fiction. “Salt,” for example, “is a purifier…so it’s good for banishing demons….But when it comes to Grays, making a salt circle is the equivalent of leaving a salt lick for deer.” The way to keep ghosts away is to remind them of death. So Alex and Darlington use “bone dust. Graveyard dirt. The leavings of crematory ash. Memento mori.” Some of the most interesting parts of the novel are when Alex quotes poetry about death to keep a ghost away.

And the magical objects are fun:
“Cuthbert’s Pearls of Protection had to be worn for a few hours every month or they lost both their luster and their power to protect the wearer from lightning strikes. A Lethe alum named Lee De Forest, who had once been suspended as an undergrad for causing a campus-wide blackout, had left Lethe with countless inventions, including the Revolution Clock, which showed an accurate-to-the-minute countdown to armed revolt in countries around the globe. It had twenty-two faces and seventy-six hands and had to be wound regularly or it would simply begin screaming.”

When Darlington shows Alex a particularly fun bit of magic, she smiles and he got “a glimpse of the girl lurking inside her, a happy, less haunted girl. That was what magic did. It revealed the heart of who you’d been before life took away your belief in the possible.”

Magic can’t solve all their problems, though, even if powerful Yale alums try to use it for almost anything:
“They’d monitored a raising at Book and Snake, where, with the help of a translator, a desiccated corpse had relayed the final accounts of recently dead soldiers in the Ukraine in a bizarre game of macabre telephone. Darlington didn’t know who in the state department had requested the information, but he assumed it would be dutifully passed along.”

Necromancy can’t reveal who is the murderer. Alex can’t just ask the murdered girl who killed her:
“Even if Alex could have managed it, many of the rituals she’d found made it clear that speaking to the newly dead usually risked raising them, and that was always a dangerous proposition. No one could be brought back from beyond the Veil permanently, and hauling a reluctant soul back into its body could be wildly unpredictable. Book and Snake specialized in necromancy and had created numerous safeguards for their rituals, but even they sometimes lost control once a Gray found its way to a body.”

But Alex does figure out how to vanquish all the villains in town, and she solves all the mysteries. There’s a satisfying end to the novel, and then you find out where Alex’s next adventure will take her.

And really, what’s better than finishing a great novel with a bang-up ending? Finding out afterwards that there will be a second novel!

5 Comments leave one →
  1. November 7, 2019 4:56 am

    Yes, “fun” is a perfect descriptor of this book. I love Bardugo. She is smart and talented – I can’t wait for more!

    • November 7, 2019 8:24 am

      Also her attitude towards necromancy is suitably full of terror, as shown in the Grisha novels!

  2. November 7, 2019 8:13 am

    The cover of the book kind of turned me off but I keep reading good things about this one so I might give it a try.

    • November 7, 2019 8:23 am

      The cover looks somber and serious, but the novel is not!

  3. November 7, 2019 3:59 pm

    Wow, this books seems to have been written with you in mind! Now for the long wait for the sequel.

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