In Ninth House, Leigh Bardugo puts her own spin on the dark academia genre in her first adult novel.
Note: While Bardugo is known for her young adult fiction, this novel is definitely adult. Content warnings include: sexual assault, rape, drug use without consent, gore.
Alex Stern is only at Yale because she has a secret: she can see dead people. People who can actually see ghosts are rare in the magical underworld of New Haven. After a brutal murder that should have been the end of her future, instead, Alex is offered a new opportunity: serve as the Dante of Lethe House, which oversees the other hidden, magical houses that have graduated some of the rich and powerful, their fame and fortune protected by the spells performed by the underclassmen.
The novel opens with a prognostication, where Alex must serve as Dante, alone, in observing the ghostly underworld while one of the Yale houses, the Bonesmen, produce their magic from a living sacrifice. With a living body splayed open on an operating table, Alex realizes the usually quiet-enough ghosts are not being quiet, but trying to break through her wards. Usually, her Virgil would be here to guide her through this prognostication until she learned all the ins and outs of magic, but her Virgil, Darlington, has gone missing. On top of all that, a young woman that reminds Alex of just where her life was heading shows up murdered on the same night the ghosts misbehaved. The cops, even Detective Abel Turner who is on Lethe's payroll, want to brush it off as just a girl from Town murdered over drugs. Alex suspects something more.
In learning to navigate this unfamiliar world of both magic and ivy league “protocols,” Alex is shepherded by Darlington, the charming, rich, and smart senior who she will replace. The only problem: Darlington has disappeared, and Alex has to find out why—or she just might not survive finals, let alone killer demons.
A young woman from New Haven murdered on a magical night, her mentor Darlington gone missing, and her grades are slipping--Alex has her work cut out for her, but what makes everything harder is her status as an outsider. She's from California, grew up in poverty, has severe trauma from seeing ghosts but also from how that horrific ability impacted her mentally, leading her to drug usage. Now, she's dropped into not only the magical societies that influence Yale (and most of the rich and famous) but also has adjust to Ivy League classism, which Darlington--the educational superstar--struggles to understand.
Told in alternating chapters from the points-of-view of Alex and Darlington, Bardugo develops not just the world and magic systems, but also what it means to be an outsider in a place like Yale. It's not all magic and ghosts--Alex still has to pass her English class with its ungodly amount of reading. Importantly, the hierarchy inherent in academia is on full display, as different professors and deans play favorites with students, placing them in deadly situations, Alex included. But, those same people in power are unwilling to work to protect the students, even when Alex finds out certain students are using magic to drug others. Through this magical hierarchy, Bardugo is able to explore the toxic power dynamics of higher education, whether it's a hidden society, a frat house, or a sports team.
Part of what makes this first novel a great addition to the dark academia subgenre is the focus on Yale lore. The ghosts, murderers, architects, and locations of Yale aren’t just included to spice up the story but actively tell the tale. In addition to critiquing the power Yale holds as an institution, the historical aspects balance out the magic, just as Bardugo confronts both magical obstacles and problems realistic to academia (such as scheduling appointments with your bougie advisor). Thus, the novel's alternating point-of-view, alternating chronology, and balancing of magic and reality come together to serve each other in a larger critique of institutionalized power.
While Leigh Bardugo's popularity comes from her Grishaverse novels (two of which I reviewed here), Ninth House represents a welcome change. Bardugo demonstrates her strength as a writer to capture reality and fantasy her exploration of a magical Yale with the same entertaining style that she brings to her young adult novels.
Baseline Assessment: 7/10
Bonuses: +1 for the inclusion of Yale lore as well as ivy-league imposter syndrome
Nerd Coefficient: 8/10: well worth your time and attention
Reference: Leigh Bardugo, Ninth House [St. Martin's, 2019]
Posted by: Phoebe Wagner (she/her) is an author, editor, and academic writing and living at the intersection of speculative fiction and ecology. She tweets as @pheebs_w.