House and Home

House and Home

Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo begins as the best fantasy novels do: with a map. A collection of locations exotic to most readers but not to us—Harkness Tower, Grove Street Cemetery, Beinecke Library—are tagged along the map’s greyscale streets, numbered 1 through 31.

Tara’s Death Site is number 32.

Bardugo’s vision of New Haven comes to life as we meet Alex Stern, our protagonist. Yalies and the Yale-adjacent will be immediately delighted by the experience of reading familiar names and normalities in novel form, even or especially when twisted and warped to fit Ninth House’s world of magic and mayhem. But Bardugo’s worldbuilding is executed in a way that even those unfamiliar with the reality of the setting are usually swept into the novel’s storied architecture and melancholy mysticism.

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Alex can see ghosts—or Grays, as the Lethe call them. The Lethe comprise the titular House, purposed with the supervision of the Houses of the Veil, Yale’s eight secret societies who have been wielding and harnessing dark magic in a wildly successful pursuit of riches and opportunity for generations. We are given no time to ease into the brutality of this sorcery, a barely-there prologue failing to brace us for what follows.

Guts. Guts are what follows. And not in a strong female lead sort of way but in a nauseating ritualistic operation to divine tomorrow’s stock market operations from the intestines of an unsuspecting patient plucked from the Yale New Haven Psychiatric Hospital sort of way. The Ancient Eight boast rosters crammed with celebrities, political powerhouses, movers and shakers of the entire world, both real and Bardugo’s. And dangerous, heartless magic is how they’ve manifested and maintained their influence for hundreds of years, unbeknownst to, and often at the expense of, unsuspecting students and locals.

Alex is recruited to join the Lethe when the fictional Dean Sandow arrives at her hospital room following a mysterious incident and offers her a proposition, Nick Fury-style. If she’ll use her supernatural connections for the aid of their regulatory society, she’ll get a full ride to Yale, no questions asked about her lack of a high school diploma or recently broken drug addiction or single set of winter clothes. Alex accepts, and we catch up with her right as her magical history tutor disappears, a local girl named Tara is murdered under suspicious circumstances and her midterm Milton essay is overdue.

Bardugo is an avid reader’s writer, her work full of fine craftsmanship and ohh, I see what you did theres. As a lifelong consumer of fantasy, I was enthralled by this grown-up wizarding version of The 39 Clues. As a Yale alum, I felt authenticity in her curated recognition of campus peculiarities, from the buzzing insanity of Halloweekend to the beloved late-night snack haunts to the way in which a Yale ID changes one’s relationship with the police. As a scholarship student from rural Tennessee, I felt painfully reflected in the crippling imposter syndrome Alex battles between bouts with ghosts and ghouls. As a person who has come to view New Haven as home, I recognized the portrayal of the complicated relationship between the city and the school.

“Reading Ninth House, people might think I have some kind of bone to pick with Yale,” Bardugo told Ángela Pérez during an interview for the Yale Daily News. “I suppose I do. I have a bone to pick with all institutions that embody a particular kind of privilege. But I also loved my experience at Yale. And I hope that comes through… here’s a reason we long for these hallowed halls and these ivy-covered walls.” Aided by a cast of believable and belovable characters that pulse with life, Ninth House conjures a Frankensteinian, southern gothic version of Gilmore Girls, yet still manages to analyze class dynamics in a grounded way.

If you, like me, are left salivating like a hellhound, you’re in luck. Hell Bent, the sequel, came out earlier this year and is available to borrow from the New Haven Free Public Library. You’ll just have to wait until I’m finished with it.

Ninth House
Written by Leigh Bardugo | Published by Flatiron Books (2020)
Where to Buy: Bookshop | Barnes & Noble | Amazon

Written and photographed by Miki Cornwell. Image features the book in front of Book and Snake.

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