A Jolt of Power: Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo

Galaxy “Alex” Stern sees ghosts. Bloody, blown open, broken, they look as they did at the moment of their deaths. Drugs mute their effects, but at a high price. After she’s found by the police as the only survivor to a brutal crime scene, she’s offered an out by the Lethe House, one of nine secret magical societies at Yale. She becomes a Dante to Daniel “Darlington” Arlington’s Virgil (basically an apprentice to a master), and learns how to keep the other eight Houses in line. Things go smoothly at first. The “Ancient Eight” specialize in certain magics, while Lethe House protects the sanctity of the rituals and prevents the Houses from running amok. Or so Alex is told.

When Darlington vanishes by nefarious means and a young woman from town turns up murdered, Alex finds her dreams for the future crumbling before her eyes. Her benefactor tells her in no uncertain terms to let the case go and her police contact, known as Centurion, demands she back off and not screw up his case. But something about Tara Hutchinson’s death haunts her, and it’s not just the ghost of the Bridegroom who keeps following her around. There is something else going on, something someone is working very hard to keep hidden from her. Suspects and victims start piling up and it gets harder and harder to tell who is who. Alex wants to be the kind of woman who gets good grades and socializes with intellectuals, but if she’s going to make it out alive she’ll have to embrace the angry, rough-edged survivor mentality she’s buried deep.

Leigh Bardugo is widely known for her young adult fantasy novels. They’re grounded yet exploratory, pushing boundaries and breaking hearts. Her Grishaverse books have spawned countless copycats and inspired innovative interpretations. The Six of Crows books are even being made into a television show. I like Leigh Bardugo the young adult fantasy author, but I absolutely LOVE Leigh Bardugo the adult fantasy author. Everything I felt was missing from her young adult work is all over her adult book. In my review copy, I must have dogeared every other page to mark a meaningful quote or scene. Things she’s only hinted at in her young adult work is dredged up from the depths, cut open, and exposed to the world.

Ninth House is a story about power—who has it and who wants it. As Alex’s Ladino-speaking grandmother would say, “Quien se prestado se vestio, en medio de la calle se quito,” never trust people who are too pretty and too well-dressed. Every member of the Houses are too pretty, but so too are the people meant to be her allies, people like Darlington, Centurion, and Professor Belbalm who are supposed to work side-by-side with her. With their smooth surfaces and easy smiles, the powerful are easy to spot. The ones who abuse their power, less so. The ones who use their power for good are even harder to suss out.

Alex doesn’t trust anyone, but she is extra suspicious of the people who built themselves a perfect world of wealth and access; at the same time, she dreams of belonging to that world and of the success and stability it offers. She could let Tara Hutchinson’s murder go, focus on her grades and work for Lethe, become Professor Belbalm’s assistant, and let the privilege wash over her like the tide coming in. She could be a shepherd for the houses instead of “[standing] hoplite, hussar, dragoon” against death. She could protect the university and leave the town to fend for itself. But no matter how much Alex pretends she earned her spot at Lethe and Yale, she is as much town as Tara was. They are both young women who found a sliver of power and risked everything to hold onto it. Will it kill Alex as well?

Those who resist power, who are content to live in their own space without being influenced or envious, are broken or used and discarded the moment they let down their guard. And the rest, people like Darlington and Alex, must bend and reshape themselves to fit into a world that only wants the tiny piece of power they can offer. For Darlington and Alex do have a kind of power. Not in physical strength or intellectual prowess but by something less definable, less tangible, and, by consequence, unstealable. What they have the Houses cannot take by force, only consume.

Darlington gave himself willingly to sate his unquenchable curiosity and need for human connection. He believed he was safe because he was one of them. Alex also surrendered to them, but her choice was either join Lethe or spend the rest of her short life suffering alone. She wanted the better life they promised her. She gave up her tattoos and took on the persona of a girl who fit in to the world of Yale and went to frat parties and her professor’s salons.

They look the part, but neither are really part of the inner circle. That makes them expendable, something neither realize until it’s too late. After an attempt on her life, Alex is made to feel as it was her fault, as if she caused the violence. If she had died, she knows that would not have tempered the accusations against her. The things that made the Houses want her as Dante would be turned against her, and all blame would fall squarely on her corpse. Even in death, others would assert control over her. She only has power if she can hold onto it. And Alex is determined to never let go. We see this play out in two other instances involving sexual assault. In both cases, the female survivors had their freewill stolen from them by men abusing their power, and there’s nothing either woman can do about it. They have no way of fighting back and getting revenge, until Alex offers them a jolt of power.

But men don’t hold the monopoly on dominating and subjugating. Bardugo forces white women to account for their role in consolidating power in the hands of a few. To expand on my earlier thesis, Ninth House is more than a story about who does or doesn’t have power. It’s about what (or who) a person will sacrifice to gain power and to what extremes they’ll go to keep it.

By far, Ninth House is the best novel Leigh Bardugo has ever written, and definitely one of the best of 2019. If I gave stars to my reviews, it would get 10 out of 5. It is a clarion call for accountability, a summoning spell for “girls like us” who cannot fight back, and a battle cry for those working to dismantle the system.

Ninth House is available from Flatiron Books.

Alex Brown is a high school librarian by day, local historian by night, author and writer by passion, and an ace/aro Black woman all the time. Keep up with her on Twitter and Insta, or follow along with her reading adventures on her blog.

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