Ninth House (Alex Stern #1) Review

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Book: Ninth House (Alex Stern #1)

Author: Leigh Bardugo

BECHDEL TEST: PASS-Alex and her professor Marguerite Belbalm, have a discussion about her grades and her future at Yale.

I was really excited for this book, because I love Leigh Bardugo and I was looking forward to seeing how she would transition from YA to Adult. I’ve also been talking about wanting to find more Uni aged protagonists in fiction, especially fantasy for a while now, so naturally the premise really appealed to me. I thought the concept for this book was fantastic, and I loved the creativity in the world building but unfortunately the pace just lagged for me. It was a good 200 pages before I felt like I was really invested in the story, and I just didn’t really warm to the characters at all. Here is a short synopsis of the book:

Galaxy “Alex” Stern is the most unlikely member of Yale’s freshman class. Raised in the Los Angeles hinterlands by a hippie mom, Alex dropped out of school early and into a world of shady drug dealer boyfriends, dead-end jobs, and much, much worse. By age twenty, in fact, she is the sole survivor of a horrific, unsolved multiple homicide. Some might say she’s thrown her life away. But at her hospital bed, Alex is offered a second chance: to attend one of the world’s most elite universities on a full ride. What’s the catch, and why her?

Still searching for answers to this herself, Alex arrives in New Haven tasked by her mysterious benefactors with monitoring the activities of Yale’s secret societies. These eight windowless “tombs” are well-known to be haunts of the future rich and powerful, from high-ranking politicos to Wall Street and Hollywood’s biggest players. But their occult activities are revealed to be more sinister and more extraordinary than any paranoid imagination might conceive.

I have to start with my biggest problem with the book, which was the pacing. It was incredibly slow paced, and I get that it was more of a slow burn mystery type book, but if you’re over 200 pages into a book and it’s not really gone anywhere, then I consider that a problem. The chapters, especially in the beginning, were overly long and honestly, I felt like it could have used trimming a little, it didn’t feel like the story needed the 450 pages it had, and I think if it had been shorter, the plotting and pacing may have been tighter.

I did love the concept, I thought it was really creative and not something I’d really seen much of before. I loved all the different societies having different types of magic, though we didn’t really get to explore all of them, the book mainly focuses on Skull and Bones, Scroll and Keys, Aurelian and Manuscript. I also really liked that this was a fantasy that focused on University students, it’s something I’ve been looking for and I hope that the success of this book might make publishers more willing to take on stories like this.

There was a fair bit of controversy when this book came out about the dark themes, and Bardugo definitely didn’t shy away from the darker elements of life, but I didn’t think it was anymore gritty or brutal than anything else I’d read. There are a fair few trigger warnings for this book though, which include: child rape, sexual assault, drowning, violence, gore, magical drug-related sexual assault, drug addiction, overdose, suicide, blackmail, consumption of human waste, murder and racism. There was quite a graphic rape scene which I found rather uncomfortable, but by and large, I didn’t find the book overly graphic.

I really loved the map at the beginning, I’m not massively familiar with Yale, or New Haven, so that was definitely helpful, and I do love it when a fantasy book has a map.

As for the characters, well it took me a while to warm up to any of them. Alex is by nature quite guarded, which is understandable given the trauma that she’s been through, but she did feel quite flat and her motivations were quite hazy for me for most of the book. I did find that she grew on me more later in the book, but she wasn’t quite as developed as I would have liked her to be. Both Darlington and Dawes, the other two main “Lethe” characters in this book, also felt like they were quite poorly developed, I got a general sense of both of their characters, but not enough to feel any kind of connection to them, and Darlington was barely there for most of the book.

In general, Bardugo’s writing was great, though I will admit, I thought there was a little too much exposition and info-dumping, especially in the first 200 pages of the book. She definitely does know how to create atmosphere with her writing though, and there were some really beautiful turns of phrase here.

I also thought there was a little too much reliance on narration and internal monologue. Bardugo does dialogue so well, I’m surprised she didn’t use more of it here and I definitely felt that contributed to the plodding pace. I also think that more dialogue between the characters would have helped in terms of establishing clearer character dynamics.

I also thought that the switching back and forth between the past and the present was a little choppy, especially in the first half of the book where it was switching between Darlington and Alex’s POVs. I think that was a little too much, either have two narrators both in the same time period, or switch between the past and the present with the same narrator, because the way Bardugo did it here didn’t seem to work.

I did like that Darlington and Alex had a platonic relationship, at least for now. There were hints that Darlington might have a thing for Alex, but I’m hoping that Bardugo doesn’t decide to explore that, because I am so sick of platonic relationships always turning into romance. Speaking of romance, I did read Alex as potentially having some feelings towards women, her relationship with her former roommate Hellie definitely seemed like it had romantic undertones, so I’d like to maybe see that explored in future books (though I may have read that totally wrong).

The world building was good, but it was almost overwhelming. You get so much information thrown at you right from the get go, you’re basically dumped in the action and I’m guessing we were supposed to feel like Alex, kind of confused by everything, but as a reader, that’s not a particularly fun place to me. I mean, everything was developed well, I know how Lethe works, I know the basics of all the societies and their histories, but I just felt like too much information was getting thrown at me all at once. I also wish I’d read the appendix with all of the Houses of the Veil and their details before reading, because I think I’d have been less confused.

I did feel like some of the character relationships and dynamics were lacking. I really enjoyed Alex’s dynamic with Turner, I think they bounced off each other well, but with the other characters, I felt like either we didn’t really see how they worked together or it wasn’t developed enough. Like Alex and Dawes definitely had the potential for a great friendship, but I don’t think it was developed and I really want to see more of that in future books. Same with Alex and Darlington, or Darlington and Dawes. In the first book of a series, I always want to get a sense of how the characters relate to each other, and I don’t feel like I got that here.

I also really wish we’d got see Alex with her non-Lethe friends more, as when an event happens that impacts one of her friends, she goes all out to get revenge for her, but as readers, we’ve not really seen any textual evidence to suggest that their relationship is that strong.

I definitely think that this book could have had more diverse representation: Alex is stated to be (I think) a biracial Latina, though that definitely could have been made clearer, and Detective Turner, who is black, and I think Alex’s friend, Mercy was black as well, but I definitely felt like the diversity could have been better, it did seem to be a largely white cast, other than these few characters. There’s also not really any LGBTQ+ representation, or disabled representation which would have been great to see.

I thought it was great that Bardugo included a scene with Alex getting her first period, it’s great to see that being normalised in fiction.

I think Bardugo went a little overboard on the sheer number of mysteries needing to be solved in this book: we had North and Daisy Whitlock’s murders, Tara Hutchins’ murder, the Scroll and Key portal magic not working, Darlington’s disappearance…..and though everything tied together in the end, I feel the book would have been better if Bardugo had perhaps just focused on one or two main mysteries.

The exploration of both trauma and white male privilege was done really well, and it was quite interesting see how the magical aspects tied into both things.

There were some really great twists in the book, both in Alex’s past and in the events that happened in the current timeline, though I will say that I felt like the murder case was solved a little too easily at the end and there were perhaps a few too many coincidences and convenient leaps, rather than clues to follow throughout the book. Still it definitely ended in an exciting place (though I wish the details around Darlington’s disappearance hadn’t been so hazy) and made me excited to read the next book.

Overall, I think this book had a lot of potential, I loved the concept, and I thought it tackled difficult topics well, but it was definitely bogged down by too much detail and too many subplots, which made it feel very slow paced. Still I enjoyed it enough that I will definitely be reading the second book, in the hope that now everything is set up, I will be able to fully immerse myself in the world and characters.

My Rating: 3/5

My next review will be of my November #RockMyTBR book, An Enchantment of Ravens by Margaret Rogerson.