Ninth House (Alex Stern #1)

Ninth House - Leigh Bardugo

I'm really curious to see how this book lands with most Bardugo fans. I have a sneaking suspicion a lot of Grishaverse fans are going to be really disappointed by this one. I, however, quite enjoyed it once I fell into the story's rhythm.

First and foremost: It should be noted that this is an adult book, and as such it addresses a lot of adult material. This book has sexual violence in it, as well as drug use and plenty of regular violence. It is a murder mystery, and it doesn't flinch when facing the grim parts of reality for these characters. It's a dark book, especially when examining not just addict culture but also uppercrust Ivy League privilege, and I appreciated that quite a bit. I thought it did a good job of shining a light on ugly things without being an atrocity parade.

The pacing on this one is slow, and it takes its time building momentum. The bulk of the book takes place during two alternating time periods, and much of the tension falls with us, the reader, not knowing what happened to these characters before we join their story. For me this meant a slow start, and it wasn't until I was nearly halfway through that I started really feeling connected to the characters. However, boy howdy does this one ramp up towards the end. I sped through the last 150 pages, and when I reached the end I wanted to pick up the next book in the series right away.

Mood and tone are at the heart of this book. This is a story rooted in the Gothic, but updated for the present. New Haven, and more centrally Yale, are depicted in full gloomy detail. Setting becomes a character, with crumbling architecture, magical tombs, and houses that sigh and moan their displeasure at various happenings. Ghosts push in from every angle, and eventually even take center stage as the story progresses. And like all good reads of this nature it comes complete with secret societies, ancient rites, viscera, dread, and a cast of characters you can never quite fully trust.

Speaking of characters, I didn't think I was going to like the main character, Alex. Honestly she's hard to like. In fact, I think she'd be the first to tell you that. However, by the end I found myself really rooting for her. She experiences a satisfying character arc and I bought in to her growth. I also quite liked Darlington and Dawes. If you're hunting for romance you'll be disappointed, but if you want flawed characters you'll find them in spades.

Here's the thing, this book is a gloomy, atmospheric, horror, mystery. And if that's not your bag you will be disappointed. If you're like me and you like a creepy slow burn this will likely hit a sweet spot for you. It's a dose of Secret History swirled with Anna Dressed in Blood. It was, for me, an unexpected offering from an author I associate with speedy popcorny books - if Bardugo usually writes a summer blockbuster this is her autumn book, full of creaking trees and long walks across campus. I approve.