REVIEW | Ninth House (Alex Stern #1) by Leigh Bardugo

Name: Ninth House (Alex Stern #1)
Author: Leigh Bardugo
Genres: Adult, Urban Fantasy
Publisher: Gollancz
Format: Uncorrected Proof
Source: Ellie @ Faerie on the Shelf
Rating: ★★★★★

Galaxy “Alex” Stern is the most unlikely member of Yale’s freshman class. Raised in the Los Angeles hinterlands by a hippie mom, Alex dropped out of school early and into a world of shady drug dealer boyfriends, dead-end jobs, and much, much worse. By age twenty, in fact, she is the sole survivor of a horrific, unsolved multiple homicide. Some might say she’s thrown her life away. But at her hospital bed, Alex is offered a second chance: to attend one of the world’s most elite universities on a full ride. What’s the catch, and why her?

Still searching for answers to this herself, Alex arrives in New Haven tasked by her mysterious benefactors with monitoring the activities of Yale’s secret societies. These eight windowless “tombs” are well-known to be haunts of the future rich and powerful, from high-ranking politicos to Wall Street and Hollywood’s biggest players. But their occult activities are revealed to be more sinister and more extraordinary than any paranoid imagination might conceive.

I was lucky enough to have been loaned an ARC of this by my Bitch Bae, Ellie, and I’m so grateful because I don’t think I would have coped if I’d had to wait. Thankfully, I also had a few friends who had already read Ninth House when I did so shout out to Ellie, Tes and Bethan for dealing with my screaming texts xoxo

I was due to start this shortly after the explosion on twitter about content warnings and the content of the book. I was apprehensive. I knew there was a lot of stuff about rape and sexual assault which is personally a pretty bad trigger for me, but I can deal with it with warning. I knew it would be rough, and it was, but I think Leigh deals with the difficult subjects incredibly well. I’ll talk about that more later, but I went in cautiously. 

And it was



“If you were going to hell together, murder seemed like a good place to start.”

It was everything I wanted in an adult urban fantasy that I didn’t know I needed. I’ve never read dark academia but Ellie, Tes and Bethan all live for this shit (with special emphasis on The Secret History) and if all dark academia is as good as Ninth House then I am in. It was witchy, occult, demonic, gothic, feminist, brutal, scarred, painful, ugly, cathartic and pure goddamn genius.

“Mors irrumat omnia.
Death fucks us all.”

Now, I’ve seen some reviews saying that the pacing was out and that they felt the story dragged and the book could have been punchier if it was half the length. Personally, I found it just right. I was so intrigued by Lethe and the secret societies and learning about those, while also wanting to know more about Alex’s backstory. I was in such high MYSTERY mode, trying to work out what had happened that I just could not put the book down. It was timed so well that despite having to work, I barely let the book out of my sight for the few days I was reading it.

“This was why he had done it, not because of guilt or pride but because this was the moment he’d been waiting for: the chance to show someone else wonder, to watch them realise that they had not been lied to, that the world they’d been promised as children was not something that had to be abandoned, that there really was something lurking in the wood, beneath the stairs, between the stars, that everything was full of mystery.”

The history of Yale, New Haven and the secret societies was an incredibly fascinating backdrop for this tale. I found myself sucked in and was amazed to find out that so much of it is based on reality. The houses do exist (though maybe without the magic, who knows), and the locations mentioned in the book are so accurate that I’d love to do a Ninth House walking tour of Yale, pls make this happen Bardugo. It was the perfect balance of fact and fiction that makes a good ghost tale and the perfect halloween read.

“Night ebbed and flowed around her in a cape of glittering stars; above the oil-black sheaf of her hair, a constellation glowed – a wheel, a crown. Her eyes were black, her mouth the dark red of overripe cherries. He could feel power ebbing around her, through her.”

Now I gotta tell you something about Galaxy Stern. I would fucking die for Galaxy Stern. I would let her step on my neck and beat me bloody. Which she would do. She is so imperfect. So grey. So not the perfect heroine. It’s just brilliant. I was on her side from start to finish, a total enigma, and despite the shit she’s been through she still fights. If you know anything about me, you know I love a beaten down woman who fights back for her friends, her family, for the ones she loves. Dear lord does Alex fight.

“Quien no sabe de mar no sabe de mal.
He who knows nothing of the sea knows nothing of suffering.”

As I mentioned earlier, the content of this book is serious. Most importantly, this is an adult novel. Bardugo-lovers who are mad for Shadow & Bone need to use serious caution because this is nothing like her YA. If you are under the age of 16, you should not be reading this book. You should not be buying this book for your child, grandchild or young relative. Hell, if you’re over the age of 16 you should still use caution. I had to put this book down multiple times and go out on walks to clear my head. This book fucked me up and I am 24 and have seen shit. Do not go into this lightly.

However, as a survivor, I found this book unbelievably cathartic. Maybe I’m still fucked up and bitter, but let me tell you that the payback was gratifying. Beyond that though, I feel she dealt with the heavy themes of sexual abuse/assault well. While the scenes were graphic, I don’t believe they were gratuitous. I am sure the final copy will have a full of content warnings but I have tried to compile an extensive list as well and popped it at the bottom of this review. If anyone would like more information on the content of the book or page numbers so they can go in prepared, please feel free to contact me on any social media and I would be happy to help in any way I can.

“Beautiful boys who should be happy, who wanted for nothing but still found things to take.

Basically, I loved this book. It was not a fun book to read, nor was it enjoyable in a conventional sense, but for me it was cathartic, intricate and intriguing. I think Bardugo is just such a master of her craft that she could do anything she puts her mind to. While King of Scars failed to hit the mark for me 100%, Ninth House more than makes up for it.

TL;DR – Witchy, occult, demonic, gothic, feminist, brutal, scarred, painful, ugly, cathartic and pure goddamn genius.

Representation: PoC (mixed race MC of latinx and Hebrew descent, asian and black secondary characters), mental health (notably PTSD and depression), socio-economic diversity (with emphasis on the lack of disparity in Ivy League education).
Content Warnings: Blood magic / cutting and gore, drug use / abuse / overdosing and non-consensual drugging, graphic depiction of murder, physical and magical violence, loss of a loved one, parental abandonment, statutory rape, blackmail, talk of suicide, PTSD and grief depiction. A flashback scene where a character is raped / sexually assaulted as a minor (12) in quite graphic detail. A scene where a character is drugged, raped by two people and filmed. A description of a video depicting a rapist forced to eat human faeces.
While I have tried my best to list as many warnings as possible, please consider doing further research as I may have missed some things and this book is very triggering.

Are you anticipating Ninth House? Let me know in the comments!

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10 thoughts on “REVIEW | Ninth House (Alex Stern #1) by Leigh Bardugo

  1. twobookthieves says:

    I literally agree with all of your points and am so glad we both loved this book! I definitely think that the pacing was just right too and I’m also now trash for dark academia if this is what it’s like. Also going to have to admit to joining the “I would die for Galaxy Stern” club. Is it bad that you’ve made me want to reread Ninth House already?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. iambookmad says:

    This review is excellent! I recently got NH from a trade, and I have been putting it off due to all the negativity I have seen around it. However, your review has helped to put my mind at ease when I eventually find the time to start.

    Liked by 1 person

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