Zodiac Killer: Ninth House Review

Blurb for Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo

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.

My Review

Apropos of nothing, I discovered this week that the Sagittarius’ ruling house is the ninth, whatever that means. I happen to be a Sagittarius, through no fault of my own, so I thought that piece of trivia fit nicely with me finally getting to reviewing Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo. The last review I wrote was on The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater, so we might as well keep in with the unintentional zodiac theme.

Despite being impressed with Crooked Kingdom, which I reviewed in this post, I never really considered myself a Bardugo fan. At least not enough to seek out her debut into the realm of adult fiction, despite hearing generally positive things about its reception.

Happening upon said debut, Ninth House, at the library without ever intending to pick it up, I somehow found myself skimming the first few pages and feeling unexpectedly in the mood. It was right. Coming off a recent DNF that I was decidedly not in the mood for, I was in the market for a new book.

The story proper leaps in without preamble and I was good and confused with the terminology, names, and exactly what had happened to our main character’s mentor for probably the first three or four chapters.

I loved every minute of it.

Instead of condescending to the reader with info dumps and explainers, the important stuff is explained in its natural course as the protagonist, Alex, thinks about how things are supposed to be, or what she doesn’t know yet, and we are left to extrapolate the rest.

It’s rewarding to an attentive reader and I enjoyed the discovery alongside Alex, who also happens to function as our guide/access character because she is fairly new to the world as well. She is inexperienced in a sense, but not mind-numbingly so because she has some street smarts and also because she has a natural leg up into the role by dint of her ability to see ghosts. Or “Grays” as they are called.

(Because we can’t just call them ghosts, that’s too mainstream. Although, given some of the stuff about how they appear in this book, I don’t know if I’ll ever listen to a song that mentions something poetic about living/dancing/sleeping with a ghost quite the same way ever again.)

Alex is a compelling protagonist in a lot of ways that I haven’t seen that often recently. She isn’t always admirable or right, but she takes intiative, isn’t afraid to throw her weight around, is a shrewd judge of character, and is learning to care about people other than herself again. She’s a defined, yet evolving character. She has oblique motivations sometimes, but it all ultimately comes from her established character, which has been formed by her history of trauma.

The significant inciting incident is Alex deciding to investigate the apparently mundane murder of a woman near one of the campus squares, which immediately starts the story with her agency. While she is told to stay out of it, she has the drive to keep pushing until she unearths something that reveals the true ritualistic nature of the killing, putting it squarely in her wheelhouse.

And why does she have this drive? Well, it’s not immediately apparent, but neither is it just because the author needed to give her something to do to kickstart the plot, either. It’s closely connected with Alex’s desire to rectify some experiences from her own past that she associates with the death, though not overtly.

The way Alex’s backstory is woven into the narrative, coming out in relevant pieces, slowly and sparingly at first and then all in a gush at a critical point, is almost perfectly paced. I hesitate to say quite perfect, because the way in which the “critical point” was paused to tell us in several scenes the specifics of her backstory really diffused the tension of the immediate situation she is in. So much so that I had forgotten she was in the middle of a life-threatening fight by the time the flashback was over.

What would have been perfect pacing, in my opinion, would have been to finish the fight, including the part of it that mirrored what happened in the flashback, and then in the cool-down after, have the flashback occur to fill in the blanks/explain what happened.

Another interesting thing to note about the pacing is that it alternates fairly consistently between what is happening in the present with Alex and what transpired the previous fall with herself and Darlington, her guide and mentor through the world of Yale’s secret societies. It had the interesting effect of making Darlington a real live character, despite that fact that he is missing in the present.

Once I figured out the timeline within the first few chapters, I found the switches enjoyable, including those in the not too distant past from Darlington’s perspective. It was framed as the terms/semesters of a school year, with the flashbacks being in the Fall term, while the current events were in the Winter term and it somehow helped to establish the different timelines.

The one with Darlington was golden and warm, magic shimmering in the autumn air with all the unknowns of change as Alex gets accustomed to her new environment. The one without Darlington is bleak winter, the novelty faded and the air darkened with the bite of cold-blooded murder as Alex is left to stumble through her unfamiliar responsibilities alone.

Another advantage of including Darlington’s perspective in this way was to see Alex differently than she sees herself, or ever could present herself. It actually helped me identify with and understand Alex more to have Darlington’s perspective and insight on her, in addition to developing Darlington’s character and being able to connect to him through more than just Alex’s memories of him. Basically, both perspectives/timelines really complimented each other without being redundant, and doing it through having one perspective character primary in a different timeline, though not too far removed, was actually a surprisingly effective story-telling strategy.

The mystery aspect, as this review from A Crane Between the Pages notes, took a front and centre role while the magical occult aspects almost tended toward the background as atmosphere. I wondered how it would work to juggle eight different secret societies in all their varied characters, powers, and goals, but Bardugo managed a good balance of not really focusing on the houses themselves so much as their representation through a few key secondary characters who come into the murder mystery plot.

The story goes along, using the secret societies and their magical elements when needed, without getting lost in the annals of every potential conceivable use of magic and magical artefacts. They are explained when it is important to understand the mechanics of something or the motivation of a particular society, but essentially, these things are just features of the world and are taken in stride without unrealistically lingering on the novelty and overexplaining every seemingly cool concept. That helped keep the feel of the world grounded, as though you might walk through New Haven, pass Yale, and happen upon some of the book’s events happening in real life.

Mainly, Alex takes on an investigative role as she gumshoes her way through witnesses, victims, unconnected crimes, messy affairs, rituals gone wrong, and, of course, finds a reluctant but ultimate ally in a jaded detective.

As I write, I realise it’s crime noir in a lot of its core elements. Though, of course, in the end, there is a significant otherwordly threat behind it all, and Alex has to draw on some questionable allies and tap into her inherent gifts to bring down the ancient evil.

Ninth House is a little dark, a little gloomy, and hey, full of dead people. Most of all, it consistently paid off what it set up and that is why I really liked it–it is satisfying, the world is atmospheric, the characters are interesting and I could connect with them, it is at times both funny and gut-wrenching, and the mystery is well-plotted and paced.

It’s definitely one of my favourite new reads in a long time.

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