Ninth House is a adult dark fantasy novel by Leigh Bardugo, and the first in the Alex Stern series.
The book follows unlikely Yale University freshman, Galaxy "Alex" Stern, a homicide survivor and high school dropout who can see ghosts, known as greys. At the university, she is introduced to the eight Houses of the Veil, secret societies that leverage dark occult magic and rituals for the gain of students and alumni.
Alex's full-ride is contingent on her joining Lethe, the ninth house, responsible for monitoring the other houses and containing their power. The story weaves between timeframes: the fall, where Alex arrives at Yale and learns her duties as a member of Lethe, and the winter, as she investigates a murder and its possible connection to the Houses.
The book is Bardugo's first adult novel and the content is considerably darker than Bardugos previous works. The use of trigger warnings including sexual assault of a minor, grooming, violence and gore is advised.
This series provides examples of:
- Accidental Misnaming: Thought the book, Belbalm call's Alex "Alexandra." Alex herself never bothers to correct her until the end. It's actually a subtle hint that Belbalm doesn't have Alex's best interest in mind, since she could have easily found that her name is Galaxy in her records.
- Character Title: The series title, named after its protagonist Alex Stern.
- Crapsack World: Magic is controlled by the elite members of Yale for the gain of students and alumni. Magic wielders are entitled college students who primarily use it for showing off, getting high, and attempted (and successful) rape or alumni who use it to predict the stock market, find creative inspiration, and create binding legal agreements. In addition, ghosts are sad and sometimes violent hangers-on who follow the living around, wishing they were alive.
- Darker and Edgier: Leigh Bardugo's previous works could be pretty dark to begin with. But Ninth House makes what were simply strong implications in the Grishaverse explicit and makes the setting far bleaker.
- Dean Bitterman: Dean Sandow and Professor Belbalm.
- Dysfunction Junction: Despite the Lethe requirement that all members have no prior history of mental illness, everyone in the main cast is pretty messed up.
- Alex probably takes the cake. At Yale, she has a major chip on her shoulder, for feeling like she doesnt belong at Yale and isnt qualified. Her past before Yale includes an absent, neglectful mother, sexual assault, grooming, abuse, and drug addiction. On top of that, it is ambiguous how much control she had over Hellie when they murdered their abusers.
- Darlington, despite his perfectionism (or maybe symptomatically), is quite dysfunctional. Hes well-liked because hes always putting on a persona, and finds people very exhausting. He holds everyone at arm's length. He grew up very alone, unwanted by his parents, spending his time with his cold grandfather and wandering a decaying mansion. His obsession with magic is likely searching for meaning after his empty childhood, but hes willing to risk death just to feel special. Hes an adrenaline junkie, carelessly putting his life at risk to pursue magic, to give some sort of meaning in his life. And on top of that, its implied that he helped kill his grandfather.
- Pamela is so awkward she can barely hold conversations with others. While actually kind and well-intentioned, it makes functioning in the college environment very difficult for her.
- On the minor end of the spectrum, Turner is resentful of Yale and the secret societies, and initially quite hostile to the institution in general.
- Dean Sandow is bitter and angry that his wife left him after going through her breast cancer with her. His divorce left him with nothing, and he hasnt published in a while, so hes desperate and ruthless. He murders his mentee, Darlington, and Tara, his drug dealer, for money
- Fantastic Drug: Several examples:
- Basso Belladonna, which is like magical Adderall.
- Merity, which makes the user completely subservient (and is used as a magical roofie).
- The fog at the Manuscript party, which serves as a powerful hallucinogen.
- Glamour: House Manuscripts magic of choice.
- I See Dead People: Alexs skill. Later revealed to be shared by Professor Belbalm and the women whose souls she devoured.
- Ivy League for Everyone: Justified as Alex's powers are highly sought-after, which is what leads to her invitation to come to Yale. It doesn't work as seamless as expected when she does have trouble keeping up with the academic rigor and ends up on academic probation.
- Magnetic Medium: Ghosts threatening and assaulting Alex caused of most of her trauma.
- Master-Apprentice Chain: How Lethe trains its new members, with the senior Virgil training the freshman Dante.
- Old, Dark House: Black Elm, Darlington's beloved family estate.
- Pre Ass Kicking One Liner: Alex gives one to Professor Belbalm just before the latters death. Bonus points for Alex finally correcting her Accidental Misnaming.
- Alex: My name is Galaxy, you fucking glutton!
- Roaring Rampage of Revenge:
- Alex invites Hellie's ghost into her and with their combined strength she brutally murders their abuser and the other junkies they were living with.
- Professor Belbalm's victims get this in the book's climax.
- School Clubs Are Serious Business: Could be the alternate title of this book.
- Smart People Know Latin:
- Played With. Skull & Bones uses Dutch during their rituals, as it is the language of commerce (and because too many students are fluent in Greek and Latin).
- Darlington speaks multiple languages, including Latin, and remarks on Alex not knowing it (she later does translate something, with an internal Take That! to Darlington in her head).
- Split Timelines Plot: The story has three: fall, when Darlington was present, winter, and spring.
- Street Smart: Alex is sharp, quick-thinking, and has clear street smarts as a result of her past. However, despite her wit and attempt to pick all easy classes, "being intelligent" is not the same as "having the skills needed to succeed in college" (writing essays, for example, needs to be taught; Alex doesn't know how). She also happens to be at Yale. As expected, she very quickly ends up on academic probation.
- Tattooed Crook: Likely, this trope was the reason Alex covered her tattoos, fearful that this was the image shed present.
- Teeth-Clenched Teamwork: Alex and everyone she works with, initially. Alex begins with a bit of a chip in her shoulder, anxious because she feels like she doesnt belong, and thinks others are doubting whether shes worthy of being Dante.
- Alex and Darlington initially hit it off poorly. Alex starts at Yale angry and wary. Darlington is annoyed she prevented him from choosing his own Dante, which he was greatly looking forward to, and hes a little jealous of her ability, when hes longed for magic his whole life.
- Alex and Pamela are initially not very comfortable working together. Pamela is a very awkward person, and Alex felt like Pamela preferred Darlington.
- Alex and Turner probably exhibit this trope the most. Turner resents what he sees as Yale students able to interfere with police work because theyre part of the elite. He also resents that they mess around with dangerous magic and get themselves hurt. Alex represents this to Turner initially, and her initial defensiveness doesnt help.
- Tragic Monster: The demon is actually Darlington, who was forced to turn into one when Sandow tried to kill him.
- Trauma Conga Line: Alexs backstory. As a child, she lived with with a strange and absent mother, experienced food insecurity, all while seeing quite frankly terrifying ghosts no one else could see. CPS is called on her. She was sexually assaulted, then bullied because of it. She escapes the bullying and ghosts by using drugs and joining up with a drug dealer, who grooms and abuses her. She finally finds a friend and confidante, Hellie, only for Hellie to overdose.
- Unfinished Business: The reason the Bridegroom wants to work with Alex.
- Wizarding School: Yale, to some extent. But only for the wealthiest, best-connected students.