Book review and synopsis for Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo, a fantasy novel set in a world where Yale secret societies practice arcane magic.
In the Ninth House, Alex Stern is a student at Yale who is part of an organization the Lethe, also known as the Ninth House, that oversees the secret societies on campus that deal in arcane magic. Alex was selected due to her unique ability to see ghosts, known as Grays.
As the novel opens, Alex's mentor, an upperclassman named Darlington, has gone missing. Meanwhile, a murder of a local girl, Tara, occurs on campus that Alex suspect is related to society activities. As Alex navigates this world of magic and mystery, she must uncover the truth about what happened to Darlington and Tara while other forces work to keep these secrets hidden.
(The Detailed Plot Summary is also available, below)
Detailed Plot SummarySection-by-Section SummarySee the Section-by-Section Summary of Ninth HouseQuick Plot Summary
Alex Stern is a student at Yale who is part of an organization called the Lethe, also known as the Ninth House. It oversees the eight ancient secret societies on campus that deal in arcane magic. Alex was selected due to her unique ability to see ghosts, known as Grays. Unbeknownst to Lethe, she's also able to possess the spirit of ghosts and draw from their power. Her mentor at Lethe is a guy named Darlington, who has gone missing recently. When the book opens, there has been a murder of a local girl, Tara.
When Alex looks into Tara's death, Alex suspects that the societies are involved, though Detective Turner first thinks it was Tara's boyfriend, Lance. Dean Sandow, who oversees Lethe, tells Alex to stand down, but Alex investigates anyway. She gets help from Dawes, a Lethe assistant.
She learns that Tara and Lance were weed dealers who were helping society members grow magic substances on the side. They grew a magic drug called Merity, which makes people compliant. They also had been growing and distilling a mushroom for use in portal magic. Allowing outsiders like Tara and Lance to have access to these restricted substances could get societies disbanned.
Over the course of the book, we also learn Alex's back story. She was an outcast since people thought she was crazy. After she was raped by ghost, she dropped out of school and began doing drugs (which dulls her ghost-seeing abilities). She fell in with a bad gang, including Len her abusive, older boyfriend. One night, a friend of hers Hellie was killed while Len was doing a drug deal. That night, Alex realized she could possess Hellie's spirit, and uses it to murder all the rest of them. She was then found in the hospital and recruited into Lethe. They taught her how to manage the ghosts and ward them off and whatnot.
Alex uses a connection with a ghost ("North") to research Tara's death. In exchange, Alex must find the killer of North’s fiancée, Daisy, who North is believed to have murdered in 1854. Darlington had also been looking into her death. When Alex finally locates Darlington’s notes, she realizes that Daisy’s death corresponds with the founding of the tomb of the first secret society. Each founding after that also corresponds with the death of one woman. In other words, it’s these deaths that create the power nexuses that fuel the secret societies, and Tara’s death was meant to create a new one.
When Alex confronts Dean Sandow about her findings, Dean Sandow admits he killed Tara (a secret society paid him to create a new nexus), but also says that it didn’t work. No new nexus appeared. Professor Belbalm then interrupts to admit that she is actually Daisy’s soul residing in another possessed woman’s body. She is a Wheelwalker, like Alex, which is why they both have special powers. Consuming human souls keeps her alive, but also creates these new nexuses. Consuming other Wheelwalkers sustains her longer, but no matter what she can’t leave New Haven without decaying. Belbalm kills Sandow, but as she tries to consume Alex, Alex draws upon all the souls inside Belbalm to use their power to fight Belbalm. Daisy’s soul is extracted and consumed, and Belbalm dies.
We also find out that Darlington disappeared into what he thought was a magic portal, but turned out to be a mouth into hell. Dean Sandow created it to get rid of Darlington because he was looking into the creation of the nexuses. At the end of the book, Alex believes that Darlington wasn’t consumed, but transformed into a demon. She recruits Dawes and Michelle (Darlington's mentor) to go with her into hell to bring him back.
For more detail, see the full Section-by-Section Summary.