This intelligent mystery mixes together academic politics, murder, and magic and is set at Yale University, the author’s alma mater.
Yale is home to some of the most famous collegiate secret societies in the country. Current estimates put the number of them at over forty. The oldest and richest of them are well-known, and are featured in Bardugo’s book. As Business Insider writes, “Yale’s secret societies often seem shrouded in mystery. They are bastions of influence and intrigue that hold among their members some of the world’s most powerful people.” (How wealthy are they? Check out the data in the same article in Business Insider, which they were able to compile since the landed societies are legally obligated to file public tax information.) And what exactly is it they do inside their hallowed walls? Bardugo has some creative theories.
The “landed” of the secret societies at Yale own valuable real estate (called “tombs”) overseen by trusts, and maintained by donations by members and former members, many of whom have acquired a great deal of money as well as positions of power and influence in society. The pressure to maintain those donations is part of the plot in this paranormal take on the “Ancient Eight,” or first of the landed societies.
In the story, each of the eight houses specializes in a different kind of magic. Skull & Bones, for example [whose alumni famously include President George H.W. Bush, President George W. Bush, and former Secretary of State John Kerry], performs divination using human and animal entrails to reveal trends in the stock market such as commodities futures. Aurelian specializes in logomancy, or word magic, helpful for forming binding contracts. Manuscript teaches mirror magic and glamours, advantageous for politicians and celebrities, and so on.
Bardugo posits the existence of a ninth house, Lethe. Lethe was established as an oversight body for the “Ancient Eight” to ensure their magic rites didn’t have fatal repercussions that could cost them their property – the tombs – and their endowments. The tombs are important to them since each was built at the site of nexuses of magical power essential for their rituals:
“No one was sure what created them, but it was why new tombs couldn’t simply be built. There were places in this world that magic avoided… and places it was drawn to… New Haven had an extremely high concentration of sites where magic seemed to catch and build, like cotton candy on a spool.”
Alex (short for Galaxy) Stern, age 20, is new to Yale and has a full tuition ride, even though she never even got a high school diploma. She was a drop out and drug user. She was also, mysteriously, the sole survivor of a horrific, unsolved multiple homicide. But Alex has a skill Lethe wants and has been on the lookout for: she can see “greys” or ghosts, which other members of Lethe cannot see without without ingesting the Orozcerio, a dangerous elixir. Part of Lethe’s job is to monitor and control ghosts during the rituals of the Eight, to which the ghosts are drawn. To that end, members of Lethe have their own supply of magic objects stored at one of their properties on campus, Il Bastone.
Alex, who is given the code name “Dante,” is mentored by “Virgil,” or Daniel Arlington, a senior known to his friends as Darlington. Other members of Lethe include Pamela Dawes, or “Oculus,” who maintains the Lethe residences and serves as their research assistant; Detective Abel Turner – “Centurion” – the intermediary between Lethe House and the Chief of Police; and Dean Sandow, who supervises Lethe and serves as liaison with the university president.
All of them become entangled in a web of horror after the dead body of a young woman is found on campus, and Alex suspects one of the rituals from the houses got out of control.
Alex’s tour of the history and culture of Yale with Darlington as her guide now turns into a murder mystery with danger coming from both the living and the dead, as well as from the magic at the disposal of the suspects.
The story, which transitions back and forth in time over the previous year, gradually reveals what happened to the characters in the past and how it affected who they became. It also forms and unreels clever and unexpected plot twists as the level of tension is elevated. We eventually learn why Alex can see ghosts when no one else can, and just what that means in terms of who and what she is.
Ninth House is intelligent and scary, and while some elements of the plot are resolved by the end of the book, there is a whole new aspect to the story that opens up in the last chapter. It is so richly full of possibility that I absolutely can’t wait till the next installment!
Evaluation: Bardugo’s speculation about what goes on behind the closed doors of the secret societies is wickedly funny. But most of the book is better described as frightening, poignant, and perceptive about fears and passions, and how they motivate behavior. Bardugo retains her predilection for rendering her [non-evil] characters as idealistic and noble, even while they are incredibly flawed. This is a great story with skillful writing, and gets better as you progress farther into it.
Published by Flatiron Books, 2019