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The Ninth House

By Leigh Bardugo, A fantasy novel set in a world where Yale secret societies practice arcane magic

Brief Summary
Detailed Summary
Read it or Skip It?

The Ninth House, by Leigh Bardugo, was released earlier this month. The book is unconnected to Barugo’s very successful “Grishaverse” world. Instead, it’s the first in a planned series of books about the protagonist, Galaxy “Alex” Stern.

Plot Summary

For the Detailed Plot Summary, click here or scroll all the way down.

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.

See the Ninth House on Amazon.

Book Review

I find secret societies a little hokey and self-important, so a book that gives them even more import and significance was always going to illicit some skepticism from me. However, Bardugo’s novel was imaginative enough to help me move past it all. It’s a thoroughly-conceived world and Bardugo has clearly taken great pains to set it up to encompass a wide range of stories. Each of the eight houses, plus the titular Ninth House that oversees them, has its own abilities and powers which make for diverse narrative possibilities.

While the book is heavily based in fantasy, mixed into the magic of Bargudo’s New Haven are elements that borrow from existing structures of privilege and power. Bardugo’s version of Yale is entrenched in the same power structures and class divisions that permeate across most college campuses, especially private “elite” colleges.

Bardugo explores these themes in various ways. For example, in the book, it is a “funding year” for the Lethe house, a year when their budget is renewed. When a mysterious murder takes place, despite Lethe’s role of oversight, the Dean of the house is reluctant to stir up trouble which creates a consistent obstacle in the book. Meanwhile, Alex Stern is accepted into Lethe based on her special ability to see ghosts (called “Greys”), but her outsider status results in being treated differently by others and having her credibility questioned.

Book Review: Some (Mild) Criticisms

The Ninth House exists in a conceptually fleshed-out world, but because it’s the first book in the series, it carries the burden of setting up the world and its many secret organizations. As a result, there’s a lot of information being flung at you on each page. There’s background information, descriptions of the mechanics of different types of magic, explaining the rules regarding the Lethe and all the secret societies, and so on.

Bardugo has come up with a very clearly imagined world and seems eager to let us all visit it along with her, but it seemed like maybe some of it could have been parceled out into future books. As a result, the book moves a little slow for something billed as a thriller. The plot does pick up quite a bit in the last hundred pages or so though, so if you hit the halfway point, you might as well finish it.

Also, the book contains some graphic content, which I was fine with (though I know many people were upset by this), except that it seemed unnecessary. There’s not a lot of it, but it still made the book a little more smutty than I’d prefer.

The Ninth House Movie / Series Adaptation

Amazon Studios has won the auction to develop the adaptation of The Ninth House as a series. Bardugo is attached to executive produce and write the adaptation.

For all the details, See Everything We Know about the Ninth House Amazon Series Adaptation.

Read it or Skip it?

In the Ninth House, Bardugo has dreamed up a thoroughly conceived fantasy version of New Haven. It’s a setup that undoubtedly has a lot of room to grow and maneuver.

However, I would probably only recommend this book to people who think they want to follow this series. A lot of this book is focused on setting up the series. As a standalone book, the plot and the mystery are just okay. Instead, a large portion of this book is spent explaining things, hinting at the characters’ backstories and waiting for information to be revealed.

I’d also add that this is an unabashedly dark novel with some graphic language. I found the story and world-building interesting, but I still felt like I needed a break from this world from time to time. Of course, I suspect this is partially a personal preference. I’m not sure if I’d consider continuing the series.

What do you think? Is this something you’d read or if you’ve read it, what did you think?

See the Ninth House on Amazon.


Detailed Book Summary (Spoilers)

Quick Summary

The detailed summary is below, but here's the quick version. 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.


Detailed Summary

Prologue - Chapter 4

Galaxy "Alex" Stern is at Yale on scholarship. She is part of House Lethe (the "Ninth House"), which was founded in 1898 to monitor certain secret societies on campus. Alex was given her scholarship because she has the ability to see "Greys" (ghosts), while others need a special elixir (the "Orozcerio") to do so. The elixir is toxic and damaging to body, though. Before the Lethe House found Alex, she was a dropout and using drugs and thought she was going crazy because she could see things no one else could. Alex is haunted by the memory of a night at a place called Ground Zero that left her in the hospital and her friend, Helen "Hallie" Watson, and many others dead.

Her mentor at Lethe is Daniel "Darlington" Arlington. He is referred to as "Virgil", while Alex is "Dante" (reference to the Divine Comedy). A new Dante is chosen once every three years, at which point the Dante becomes the Virgil/Mentor. Darlington is attractive and privileged, but he something had happened and now he is gone.

The secret societies were established in New Haven because the veil between life and death is thinnest here. The Lethe is concerned with the "Ancient Eight", which are eight landed secret societies with their houses/tombs built over area of concentrated power (a "nexus"). There are 12 nexuses in New Haven. Each of the Eight Houses is devoted to studying one branch of the arcane.

At Skull and Bones, they study prognostication. That night, they gather to do their quarterly progonstication. A haruspex digs around the guts of a person, usually a vagrant or mental patient, and then gives stock tips to all the members. The person is then stitched up and sent to a hospital to recover. Alex attends to ensure everyone's safety. Since the Lethe was founded, only one death has happened, which was a vagrant who died during a prognostication. As the ritual takes place, the Greys get antsier than usual and Alex must make sure they are kept at bay. The Greys are attracted to life and fear death, so things like bone dust will ward them off. Still, Alex knows that something weird happened during this prognostication.

Afterwards, Alex is called in by Pamela "Oculus" Dawes, who maintains the Lethe residences. She tells Alex there's been a death, a possible homicide, and Alex is needed on site. Alex shows up to find Detective Abel Turner ("Centurion"). The dead girl, Tara Hutchins, is from the "town" and it doesn't seem to be linked to arcane activities. Turner says it was the boyfriend, Lance Gressang. Alex leaves after using a "coin of compulsion" (magic coin) to induce the coroner to show her the body.

Chapters 5 - 11

Tampering with the Veil leaves a stench, so Alex grabs a shower at one of the Lethe safe houses before she goes back and has breakfast with her roommate, Mercy. Marguerite Belbalm, a professor, finds Alex and expresses her concern over Alex's academics. But she also offers Alex a summer job.

Aurelian, one of the Ancient Eight, specializes logomacy ("word magic") and deals in unbreakable contracts or vows. Alex recalls the first ritual she oversaw, which was for them. Darlington had taught her to ward off the Greys, but things had still gotten out of control when one of the Greys grabbed her arm, something Darlington hadn't thought was possible.

After the incident, Alex finally expressed her anger that the Lethe knew about her abilities as a young girl and simply monitored her until they needed her, instead of helping. Alex thinks back to when she first got her period (Greys are attracted to blood) and was raped by a Grey. Afterwards, she turned to drugs when she realized that dulling her senses prevented her from seeing them. She ended up dropping out and befriending a group of older friends, including a guy Len who she begins sleeping with.

In present day, Alex is bothered by Tara's death. Dean Sandow told her to stand down regarding this death, but she borrows Darlington's car to go to morgue anyway and uses magic to see what happened to Tara. She sees Lance stab Tara, but notes that Tara felt no pain. Turner shows up and tells her that they were on hallucinogens, and that Tara only had one contact from the secret societies on her phone, Tripp Helmuth (from Skull and Bones), but he thinks it's unrelated. Turner also warns Alex to stay away, since worried she'll mess up his case.

Chapters 9 - 12

Alex goes to Darlington's house, Black Elm, to return the car, hoping that he'll somehow be there. On her way back she is attacked by a creature. A Grey dressed as a Bridegoom starts fighting with it, which allows Alex to struggle back to a safe house (Il Bastone), vomiting blood. Dawes tells her the creature was a gluma, spirits raised by the Book and Snake (one of the Ancient Eight) to serve as messengers. Alex knows she must be getting close to something for someone to try to kill her.

(In a flashback, Alex and Darlington attend a party thrown by the Manuscript, a society dealing in glamours and tricks of vision and consciousness. A fog machine drugs Darlington and causes him to embarrass himself.)

When Alex awakes, the Bridegroom Grey is outside, and Dean Sandow shows up soon after. Alex insists that there's more to Tara's death that may be connected to the societies, but Sandow reminds her that it's a "funding year" for Lethe House and they don't want to cause trouble. (The Lethe House is funded collectively by the other societies.) Alex says she understands, but continues to investigate anyway. Alex also recalls the night Darlington disappeared. Alex had been confused about what had happened, but Dean Sandow had assured her that Darlington had just disappeared into a portal. He thought a new-moon would allow them to retrieve him.

After Sandow leaves, Alex and Dawes's next stop is Wolf's Head, where they deal in shapeshifting. Dawes thinks they may be able to help her talk to the dead so she can communicate with the Bridegroom. (Book and Snake would be the best bet, but they might be trying to kill Alex, so that's out.) To induce them to help, she makes a deal with them to give them a statue that another society, Scroll and Key, had stolen from them. Their president, Salome, tries to renege on the deal so Alex threatens her with physical violence until she complies.

To enter the Borderlands and communicate with the dead, Alex needs to die and be brought back, so Alex lets herself be drowned. There, Alex and the Bridegroom strike a deal. He will find out about Tara's death, and in return he wants Alex to find out who killed his fiance, Daisy. The Bridegroom claims that Darlington had been looking into Daisy's death as well before Darlington disappeared. To seal the deal, they exchange names which has the effect of forming a connection between them. The Bridegroom's name is Bertram Boyce North. He also helps Alex see that Tara's tattoo is a line from a poem that is associated with Scroll and Key, a society that deals in portal magic.

Chapters 13 - 16

In a flashback, we learn some of Darlington's back story. His great-great-great-grandfather made a fortune selling rubber boots. Over time, the factory fell to hard times and closed. Darlington's parent were neglectful and instead, Darlington was raised by his grandfather. When his grandfather passed away the estate required that it be left to his parents, but Darlington was left with a small college trust and the house. His parents told him to sell the house, but Darlington refused because he knew his grandfather wouldn't want that. Instead, he lived there, barely getting by. He started dabbling in elixirs as a hobby and managed to brew something that landed him in the hospital and led Dean Sandon to offer him a place at Yale.

In present day, Alex talks to Tripp to ask about Tara and to try to get her address. (The Bridegroom needs an item of Tara's in order to find her.) Tripp reveals that Tara and Lance were weed dealers who dealt to members of Scroll and Key (Colin Khatri) and Manuscript (Kate Masters). Tripp was also hooking up with Tara, but he doesn't know her address. Alex then goes to Turner and tricks him into telling her Tara's street name. Alex also does some research on the Bridegroom (North) and Daisy. They had been found dead in a factory belonging to North's family in 1854.

Alex returns to her dorm room to find Mercy distraught. A guy, Blake Keely, has taken a sexually compromising video of Mercy and sent it around. In it, Alex recognizes signs of a Manuscript drug called Merity, causing Mercy to be compliant to his demands.

Alex immediately goes to Mike Awolowo, president of Manuscript, and demands to know how Blake got the drug. But he doesn't know, and they keep it tightly restricted. She also calls in a favor (she previously helped them by not outing them for drugging Darlington), asking him to magically recall the video. Mike agrees to the ritual and also gives her a powder to make her temporarily very persuasive. With the powder (Starpower), Alex "persuades" Blake and his friends to delete the video. She also has Blake take a video embarrassing himself (he eats his own poop). Finally, she finds out that Blake bought the Merity drug from Lance and Tara.

Chapters 17 - 19

With that done, Alex goes to Tara's place to take her retainer and give it to the Bridegroom. However, right after she does, a man dressed as a mechanic appears as if out of nowhere at Tara's place and attacks her, breaking her ribs.

In a flashback, the book takes us back to the night Darlington disappeared. Alex and Darlington had been dealing with an interruption in the magic grid at Rosenfeld Hall, the former tomb of the St. Elmo society. St. Elmo deals in elemental magic and had once brewed weather there, and now it still causes disturbances that need to be monitored. As they do their work, Darlington realizes Alex has abilities beyond just seeing ghosts. She can allow ghosts to possess her. Then, Darlington sees that someone had opened a portal down there. He goes to close the portal, but as he does he realizes he was mistaken and disappears, being left in darkness.

In another flashback, we learn more about the night at Ground Zero. Len is Alex's boyfriend, but Len is abusive and sometimes asks her (and Hellie, who Alex is close with) to "entertain" the guys he does "business" with. Len wants Alex to go with him to a deal she wants no part of, and Hellie goes instead. Alex returns to Ground Zero to find Hellie dead. She lets Hellie's ghost possess her and murders everyone, including Len. Hellie then guides her to the river to wash off the blood. Afterwards, Alex hadn't been a suspect because she had no blood on her and was deemed to weak to have done it.

Chapters 20 - 22

In present day, the mechanic continues to attack Alex. She forcibly links up with the Bridegroom/North (like she had with Hallie) so that she has the power to fight back. Then, Turner happens to shows up and stop the mechanic. He's shocked to discover that the mechanic is Lance, who was supposed to be in a jail cell. Alex explains that it's portal magic and tells him to take her to Dawes. Alex also notes that as Lance attacked her, he had wanted to know who hurt Tara, indicating that he was innocent.

Dawes performs some magic to revert Alex's body to an earlier version of itself in order to undo the broken ribs. It requires bathing her in milk, which turns watery as the magic does it work. In the water, North can communicate with her because the water acts as a tie between the two sides. North tells her that when she borrowed his strength, it deepened their connection which caused the spirits of the men she had killed looking for him. Alex and North re-form a connection, and North shows her more of his story. Alex learns that North was possessed by the ghost of a man who likely died during a prognostication, who then killed Daisy.

Afterwards, Turner returns and the three of them (Dawes, Alex and Turner) try to piece together what happened. They think that Tara and Lance were growing Merity. Also, based on the chalice in Tara's room, they think that they were using psilocybin (a hallucinogenic mushroom) to enhance portal magic.

Chapters 23 - 27

Alex attends a party ("salon") that Belbalm had invited her to. Colin Khatri (from Scroll and Key, who Tara was dealing to) is one of Belbalm's assistants, and the other assistant, Isabelle Andrews confirms he was at the salon last week when Tara was killed. The next day, Alex learns that the greenhouse Tara had been using to grow Merity has been cleared out by another student, Sveta Meyers.

Alex and Turner then use a combination of magic to go question Lance in jail. Lance confirms that Kate Masters had asked them to start growing Merity, but didn't tell them what it was. They sold some to Blake. Soon, he brought Colin to them who wanted them to grow mushrooms. Colin also gave Tara a chalice to distill them into “tab”. Tab can portal a person short distances, but they need to be at the Scroll and Key tomb to go a long distance.

The next day, there is a new moon which means it’s time to try to bring Darlington back. Alex, Dawes, Sandow and Michelle (who was Darlington’s Virgil/Mentor) all gather to perform a ritual to recall him. However, the appearance of a bloodhound tells them that Darlington is not on either side of the Veil. Instead, he was consumed, soul and all. It wasn’t a portal he stepped into, but a mouth into hell.

That night, Blake shows up and uses Starpower to get into Il Bastone, attacks Dawes, and tries to kill Alex. He’s angry that she “ruined” him. In the end, Dawes is forced to kill Blake. Afterwards, Turner learns from Blake’s voicemails that Tara learned what Merity was and what Blake was doing with it. She threatened to tell the police. However, Alex knows that when she questioned Blake under compulsion, and he said that he didn’t kill Tara.

Later, Sandow tries to reassure Alex that he’ll wrap up loose ends, but he also refuses to punish the societies, since he doesn’t want to endanger Lethe’s funding. Alex is angry and disillusioned. She heads to Hutch, Lethe’s other safe house.

Chapters 28 - 31

After a few weeks of hiding out and recovering at Hutch, Mercy shows up along with Mira, Alex’s mother. Mercy had followed Alex there before and asked Mira to come visit to check on Alex. When Alex finally emerges to return to class, North forcibly possess Alex (who has been ignoring him) to give her a list of dates.

Alex is pissed, but looks into the dates and finds Darlington’s notes from before he disappeared. She realizes the dates correspond with deaths as well as the founding of each of the tombs of the secret societies. In other words, the nexuses of power that fuel the societies are created by deaths of various women. The first death was that of Daisy. Tara’s death was meant to create a new nexus.

Alex finds a coin of compulsion at Il Bastone and realizes Blake had been compelled to attack her. She also knows Dean Sandow just got divorced and was in need of money. Sandow is also a former Lethe knight (like her and Darlingon) and had been very good at it.

Alex goes to Dean Sandow to confront him about her findings. Dean Sandow admits he killed Tara because St. Elmo paid him to create a new nexus. However, he also says that it didn’t work. No new nexus appeared. Like Darlington, he had figured out the connection between the deaths and the nexuses, but clearly he’d gotten something wrong. He also admits to getting rid of Darlington by summoning the hellbeast (it was supposed to kill Alex, too) and to sending the gluma after Alex.

Professor Belbalm then interrupts to admit that she is actually Daisy. She is a Wheelwalker, like Alex, with the same special powers. In 1854, there was a prognostication gone wrong and the victim died. That soul tried to possess her, drawn to her power. So, Daisy forced the soul into North instead. However, it used North to shoot her and then had North shoot himself too. When Daisy died, her soul reached out to the nearest living person, Glady’s O’Donaghue (Daisy’s maid), and possessed her body. From there, she began consuming human souls to keeps her alive. The process also creates 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 the last one to be extracted and the rest of the souls turn on her. Belbalm’s body crumbles into ash.

Chapter 32

Later, Alex and Dawes meet up with Michelle. Alex tells Michelle that she thinks Darlington’s soul wasn’t consumed. Alex thinks Darlington has been trying to communicate with her, but not as a ghost. She thinks he was transformed into a Demon, and she is determined to go into hell and get him out.

See The Ninth House on Amazon.

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