Throughout Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo, Galaxy Stern fights to balance her background as a drug abuser and teen runaway, her lifelong gift (curse) of the ability to see ghosts, known as Grays, and her job working for a secret cultish organization entrenched within the high society of Yale University.
Together with her distant work partner, Pamela Dawes, who resents Alex for losing their boss, Darlington, to an unknown portal, and Detective Abel Turner, who resents Alex for interfering in his murder investigation, Alex must survive where all her worlds clash to do her job and put her own ghosts to rest. But she has more to do with the dangerous events happening around her than she realizes.
For Alex, the opportunity to study at Yale leads to her wholehearted attempt at change. From the drug abuse, from the hurt she caused her mother, from the abuse of the Grays themselves. But in exchange, she must use her gifts in service to the House of Lethe to guard dog the other Societies of the Veil from taking their magic dealings too far, sacrificing the lives of the citizens of surrounding New Haven in the pursuit of whatever they want.
Yet Alex soon learns that if she continues to keep her head down and try to fit in, she will fail the main directive of her House: we are the shepherds. Everyone expects her to let the murder of Tara Hutchins go, but where good girl Alex can get nowhere, the sharp, hardened Alex who has survived worse than anyone at Yale could imagine coils up to strike back. She may not fit into this world, but that lends her the element of surprise.
In her role as Dante of Lethe House, Alex meets Occulus Pamela Dawes and their Virgil, Daniel Arlington, who begins mentoring Alex to take over his role once he graduates Yale. Darlington, well-loved by all as the gentleman of Lethe, struggles to deal with Alex’s presence, as she was chosen as his apprentice for him rather than by him. But with his mysterious disappearance soon after they begin getting along, Alex finds herself on her own doing a job she has not enough guidance to do well.
She and Pamela must team up to uphold Lethe House’s creed when the very dean of the school leaves them high and dry with no help. Detective Abel Turner, recruited from New Haven’s police force as Lethe House’s Centurion, would rather have nothing to do with magic and monsters. But as Alex calls upon the two again and again, they become embroiled in helping her get to the bottom of Tara Hutchins’s murder, whether they like it or not.
I loved so many moments in Ninth House. When Dawes stands up to Dean Sandow for Alex, calling him out on his blaming her for being attacked; when Alex first begins letting her true colors as a sharp-edged, deadly person to deal with show through in order to continue the investigation without the dean’s approval; when Alex gets petty revenge on another student who hurts her roommate; when Alex calls out the main villain for attempting to turn a string of murders into a feminist manifesto. And all the soft moments when Alex gets to, for one or two minutes, enjoy the wonders of magic and of a found purpose.
Leigh Bardugo pulls no punches, so the narrative contains harsh elements and examinations of cruelty and unfairness, considering how trauma can shape a person into the sort who would seek justice at any cost so others won’t have to suffer like her. Everyone who loves magic, hope, kickass women in droves, honorable detectives, underdogs, and petty revenge should read Ninth House.
Since purchasing Ninth House in October 2019, I have read this book twice and loved every second of both readings. I enjoy the high stakes action, the contrast between Yale high society and Alex’s poor, mixed background, her toughness and unwillingness to let injustice pass, and the high energy, witty interactions between the characters.
This fantasy murder mystery examines individual responsibility to protect the weak and seek justice for wrongdoing, but in a low, shifty, clever manner. Not every tale of wrongdoing brought to judgement need be noble and lofty. When the nobility will not take responsibility for the actions of its own, the lowest must rise to take up the mantle. For, after all, we are the shepherds.
Goodreads rating: 4.07
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