Leigh Bardugo has earned a great deal of acclaim for her Grishaverse YA novels. With Ninth House, she makes her first foray into writing aimed at adults. Galaxy “Alex” Stern has been offered something that seemed out of reach: an education at Yale. This gift doesn’t come for free, of course. Alex is being asked to join Lethe House, a secret society whose job is to police the other secret societies of Yale, making sure that the magic they practice doesn’t get out of hand. Her quest for justice on behalf of a murdered “townie” will end up endangering her tenure at Yale, her life, and maybe even more than that.
Reams of paper, physical or digital, have been written about the advantage attending an elite university provides its graduates in terms of networking. This is particularly true for alumni of fraternities and sororities, and presumably also for members of more clandestine groups like Yale’s Skull and Bones. Bardugo takes this a step further by adding in magic, with each of the societies specializing in a specific type. Magic allows its practitioners to predict the stock market, make themselves appear glamorous and charming, or take the form of a small animal to spy on others. The edge this gives them is used to comment on the edge provided in the real world by more mundane organizations. Privilege—and the lack thereof—is a major theme of the novel. It’s examined from different angles in the present-day narrative, in the flashback sequences to Alex’s past, and in the story of a long-ago murder that Alex gets drawn into.
Speaking of magic, Bardugo does something very interesting with it in Ninth House. Fantasy tends to portray magic users as becoming more powerful with age—an ancient wizard hobbling around with his staff is not someone you want to mess with (hi, Gandalf). But when Alex questions why the societies are letting a bunch of college kids manipulate the fundamental forces of reality, the dean in charge of Lethe gives her a surprising answer. Magic, in this setting, is physically taxing to use. Magical power only increases with age up to a point: once someone’s body starts to decline, so does their ability to use powerful magic. I liked that subversion, and it also provides a good reason for most of the main characters to be fairly young.
Bardugo was born in Jerusalem, and part of Alex’s background draws on an aspect of the Jewish diaspora that I wasn’t aware of before reading this book. Alex speaks Ladino, a language she learned from her grandmother. Ladino is a language that evolved from Spanish but also includes elements of Hebrew, Arabic, French, and Italian. It spread from Spain to many other countries when Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492. Today, most Ladino speakers live in Israel, although it’s spoken to some degree in at least 30 countries. Modern scholars of Ladino take a particular interest in its folk songs, and in Ninth House, we see Alex drawing comfort and even occult protection from her grandmother’s songs.
The ending of Ninth House makes it clear that this is meant to be the first book in a series. While it’s very much a departure from Bardugo’s previous work, it’s a compelling and interesting one, so I’ll look forward to seeing where Alex’s story goes from here.