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Literature / Ninth House

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"All you children playing with fire, looking surprised when the house burns down."
Detective Turner

Ninth House is a adult dark fantasy novel by Leigh Bardugo, and the first in the Alex Stern series.

The book follows unlikely Yale freshman, Galaxy "Alex" Stern, a homicide survivor and high school drop out who can see ghosts, called 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 Bardugo’s previous works. The use of trigger warnings including sexual assault of a minor, grooming, violence and gore is advised.


This series provides examples of:

  • The Ace: The Gentleman of Lethe, Darlington, speaks multiple languages and is well-loved and respected, both by Lethe and by Yale at-large. He's an expert at magic and occult, so much so that he brewed elixirs before even joining Lethe.
  • Ambiguously Bi: While never confirmed, Alex definitely appears to be attracted to women. It is never clear what Hellie was to Alex, but Alex’s internal monologue makes it clear Hellie was more than a friend to her.
  • Betrayal by Inaction: How Alex views her reaction to Darlington being sucked into the portal. Darlington also notes this in his final thoughts before he disappears.
  • Character Title: The series name.
  • 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.
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  • 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 more bleaker.
  • Dean Bitterman: Dean Sandow and Professor Belbalm
  • Demon of Human Origin: The demon is actually Darlington, who was turned into a demon to survive.
  • 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 doesn’t belong at Yale and isn’t 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. He’s well-liked because he’s always putting on a persona, and finds people very exhausting. He holds everyone at arms distance. 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 he’s willing to risk death just to feel special. He’s 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, it’s 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 hasn’t published in a while, so he’s desperate and ruthless. He murders his mentee, Darlington, and Tara, his drug dealer, for money
  • Fair-Weather Mentor: Dean Sandow takes this trope next level. He tries to murder his mentee for money just because his divorce ate up his savings.
  • 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.
  • Fish out of Water: Alex at Yale.
  • Glamour: House Manuscript’s magic of choice.
  • Haunted Heroine: Alex.
  • I See Dead People: Alex’s skill. Later revealed to be shared by Professor Belbalm and the women whose souls she devoured.
  • The Lancer: In the flashbacks to the fall, Alex and Darlington served as this to the other.
  • The Lost Lenore: Hellie, to Alex.
  • Magnetic Medium: Ghosts threatening and assaulting Alex caused of most of her trauma.
  • No Social Skills: Pamela is extremely uncomfortable with strangers, and struggles to hold conversations.
  • Old, Dark House: Black Elm, Darlington's beloved family estate.
  • Pre Ass Kicking One Liner: Alex gives one to Professor Belbalm just before the latter’s death. Bonus points for Alex finally correcting her Accidental Misnaming.
    Alex: My name is Galaxy, you fucking glutton!
  • Raised by Grandparents: Darlington’s parents are incredibly immature, so they dumped him on his grandfather.
  • Reality Ensues: 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.
  • Renaissance Man: Darlington, an expert in magic, academia, and etiquette, speaks an absurd amount of languages, and plays five instruments.
  • 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.
  • Stranger in a Strange School: Alex initially in the magical secret societies of Yale. She eventually proves she belongs.
  • Tattooed Crook: Likely, this trope was the reason Alex covered her tattoos, fearful that this was the image she’d 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 doesn’t belong, and thinks others are doubting whether she’s 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 he’s a little jealous of her ability, when he’s 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 they’re 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 doesn’t help.
  • Tragic Monster: The demon is actually Darlington, who was forced to turn into one when Sandow tried to kill him.
  • Trauma Conga Line: Alex’s backstory. As a child, she lived with with a strange and absent mother, experienced food insecurity, all while she could see 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 to Hellie 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.

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