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Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo1.5 stars
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Buy from Barnes & NobleBuy from IndieBoundBuy from PowellsNinth House is the first adult fantasy by YA superstar Leigh Bardugo, whose Grishaverse novels are phenomenal bestsellers being adapted into a sure-to-be-hot Netflix series. Whatever excitement those books have given Bardugo’s fan base to make them so devoted is almost entirely absent from this lumbering and murky urban fantasy set in the snowy New Haven campus of Yale University. Just how in God’s name an author can take a story featuring multiple murders, ghosts, and clandestine magic rituals among ring-knocking Ivy Leaguers, and make it all as dull as dishwater is a mystery even Miss Marple couldn’t solve! Even a scene involving coprophagia (Google it) doesn’t do much to move the needle here.

Now you won’t ever hear me saying that YA has any less value than adult fiction, or that adult fiction is inherently more sophisticated than YA, because those things aren’t true. But you know, it takes more than just a willingness to be more explicit to make a book truly one that will satisfy an adult readership. It also takes more than piling on exposition to the point where the prose goes far beyond immersive into simply smothering you with an excess of boring detail. Ninth House is hamstrung not so much by poor pacing as no actual sense of pacing at all. Yes, I have read many verbose writers who still managed to pull off a compelling story in the end. But overwriting for its own sake, as if a mediocre story can be magically transformed into a great one simply through sheer stubborn persistence, has never had very good results.

Our heroine is Galaxy Stern (“Alex” for short), a 20-year-old Latina woman transplanted from a dead end life of drugs and drifting and despair in southern Cali to the hallowed halls of Yale, when she is discovered to possess the ability to see “grays,” or ghosts. In Bardugo’s story, Yale’s not-so-secret secret societies — Skull and Bones as well as seven others — make up the eight Houses of the Veil, and they are in fact magic societies, performing arcane rituals for the benefit of their wealthy members and benefactors. There is a ninth house, Lethe, whose job it is to oversee the rituals of the others. But none of Lethe’s members — including Daniel Arlington, Alex’s mentor — are able to see grays without taking a potentially dangerous potion. Alex can not only see grays naturally, they have even made physical contact with her, most notably in one disturbing flashback scene in which a 12-year-old Alex is sexually assaulted by a ghost in a public bathroom.

If a scene like that sounds grossly exploitive, it’s also representative of Bardugo’s bizarre failure to do anything more than flirt casually with the many ideas the book introduces. If any one thing marks Ninth House as an example of failed adult fiction, it would be that potentially meaningful and interesting themes are routinely ignored in favor of clichés and cheap shocks. Consider the very first ritual we witness, which involves one of the houses literally reading the entrails of a still-alive man in order to divine information about financial markets. Sure, there’s an easy-to-grasp metaphor right there about the rich getting richer over the bodies of the poor. But Bardugo isn’t interested in examining this. All we’re meant to take away from the scene is that these rituals draw the attention of the many grays that haunt the campus, and Lethe’s job is to present a defensive line against the incursion of angry ghosts while the rituals are taking place.

Alex is a heroine Bardugo seems invested in, but her characterization is a catalog of missed opportunities. Alex’s supernatural talents have allowed her to bypass Yale’s prohibitive admission standards so that she can make herself useful to Lethe. She starts out as a fish out of water, doing so poorly in class she ends up on academic probation, and awkwardly fumbling her first major attempt to protect a ritual. Still, it’s reasonable to expect Bardugo to have made a lot more of the whiplash-inducing culture shock Alex ought to be experiencing, going from drug-addicted LA street kid without even a GED to one of the nation’s most prestigious universities for the wealthy and connected, all in a single step.

Anyway (because I don’t want this review to be as long and dreary as the book), a murder takes place on campus. The victim, a young woman named Tara Hutchins, is a townie with a background of drugs and petty crime. Naturally finding Tara relatable on a personal level, Alex is drawn to investigate, in part because the murder took place on a Thursday, the night typically reserved for House rituals. Alex is further convinced of House involvement when her meddling causes a sharp spike in violent ghost activity. Someone summons a ghost to attack her right in the middle of a city street, and she is in turn rescued by the Bridegroom, a ghost well-known to local paranormal fans. Something major is going down, but the situation is complicated by the disappearance of Darlington.

No one knows where he is — some suspect Spain — but what immediately strikes the reader is how little Bardugo makes us care about any of this. Ninth House is a thriller without thrills, a mystery without suspense, a dark fantasy with plenty of magic being wielded by the characters but almost none infusing the story. Darlington is missing, but we’re given no real reason to worry, because he’s such a major character that his eventual reappearance is inevitable. (Not to mention that the forward momentum of the story, such as it is, is constantly being interrupted by Bardugo cutting back to the recent past to relate Darlington’s personal backstory and working relationship with Alex.) And it’s strange how little the members of Lethe seem to be worried about him. Everyone talks about his disappearance as if it’s oh-so concerning, but no one, even Alex, moves a muscle to do anything about it. Why no missing persons report? Why aren’t they ringing the FBI’s phones off the wall?

Most of the book’s supporting characters make either no real impression at all, or exist to fulfill one specific plot function, like Dawes, the shy Lethe girl who begrudgingly helps Alex when needed but otherwise seems to have no life. And Bardugo makes too many abrupt shifts to Alex’s character, such that Alex doesn’t go through anything like an actual developmental arc so much as she just changes as per the needs of the plot. Once Darlington’s gone and Tara’s murder investigation is underway, suddenly Alex is some kind of hardass supercop wizard, bullying her fellow students with threatening interrogations, antagonizing the lead detective on the case, and using dangerous, even potentially deadly magic in her quest for answers. But despite all this, she doesn’t actually seem to be investigating competently — you know, following leads and clues. During one in-your-face and entirely gratuitous scene in which she humiliates a group of rapey fratboys, Alex just accidentally stumbles upon a possible link between Tara’s murder and one of the Houses. I admit crime fiction isn’t really my forte, but something tells me someone like Gillian Flynn could have knocked out Ninth House while getting a pedicure, and made it a hundred times more suspenseful and convincing.

By the way, let’s take a second to talk about that scene with the fratboys. I suppose it can’t be avoided, and defenders of this book are arguing that Bardugo is working the theme of surviving the trauma of abuse. Sorry, not seeing it. Like way too many rape-revenge scenarios in genre fiction, it’s a scene that follows a graphic and very realistic portrayal of sexual assault with an unrealistic revenge scene rooted in pure fantasy. I suppose it’s superficially cathartic, but it’s folly to claim that Bardugo was attempting any kind of sensitive and meaningful conversation here when all she’s really offering is a “Go girl!” moment that’s no more honest in its intentions than any other exploitation story. And having the victim of the assault being all like, “LOL, you magically hypnotized my rapist to eat shit from a toilet! I totally feel better now!” is not exactly how you get your story to cut to the heart of emotional trauma.

I almost feel bad about coming down on this book so hard. It feels like a very personal project for Bardugo. She was a Yalie herself, after all, and no doubt she had a wonderful time using her alma mater as the backdrop for dark magical conflicts. And it’s not as if she does everything poorly. Scenes depicting Alex’s unhappy youth, and her relationship with a mother who was truly caring, in her way, do evoke sympathy and show that Bardugo has a real gift for character when she’s on form. But overall, Ninth House is a book burdened by a self-seriousness it simply never earns. When she finally gets around to writing the sequel, I hope someone reminds Leigh Bardugo that the key to writing meaningful adult fiction involves remembering that adulthood doesn’t have to be the time in our lives when the magic goes away.