Audiobook Review: Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating (Overall): 4 of 5 stars
Genre: Fantasy, Paranormal
Series: Book 1 of Alex Stern
Publisher: Macmillan Audio (October 8, 2019)
Length: 16 hrs and 21 mins
Narrators: Lauren Fortgang, Michael David Axtell
I was a bit nervous about starting Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo, but I actually ended up enjoying it quite a bit. I think many reviewers have hit the nail on the head with this one, when they say how you feel about the book will be highly dependent on your expectations and whether you were hoping for something similar to the author’s previous work, because I am telling you now—it is not.
First of all, Ninth House takes place in a contemporary real-world setting, and boy, can it get too real sometimes. The story follows 20-year-old Galaxy “Alex” Stern, newly admitted into the freshman class at Yale. An ex-junkie, raised by a hippie single mom in Los Angeles where her life plunged into a downward spiral of chaos and darkness after dropping out of school, Alex never thought she would find herself in New Haven getting a second chance.
But of course, there is more to everything than meets the eye. Some might say Alex is a no-good reprobate who has thrown her life away, but the truth is a lot more complicated than that. Following an incident involving the scene of multiple murder at which our protagonist emerged as the only survivor, her name came to the attention of a shadowy faction tracking the activities of Yale’s elite—many of them the wealthy scions of the most influential families in the country. In a place of such concentrated power, naturally you will see the springing up of secret societies and old boys’ networks of exclusivity. Known as the “Ancient Eight”, they are overseen by Lethe, called the Ninth House because of its role in keeping the others in line.
And now it is Lethe that has its eye on Alex Stern, because of a rare and powerful ability she has. For you see, Alex can see ghosts. Called “Grays”, these spirits of the dead are everywhere on campus, drawn to the occult ritual energies performed by magical practitioners of the Ancient Eight. In such an environment, Lethe recognizes the value of having someone like Alex on their side, but when the ugly truth behind the magic of the secret societies comes to light, it becomes clear that the school’s problems may be more than she can handle.
Ninth House was marketed as Leigh Bardugo’s adult debut, and in this book, she makes no bones about tasting this new freedom and spreading her wings, going bolder and darker than she’s ever gone before. Centered around a college setting, many of the novel’s themes deal with new adult issues—starting a new life, striking out on one’s own, dealing with many of the difficult transitions that come with becoming self-reliant and independent. But in Bardugo’s world of secret societies and dark magic, there are also monsters of both the fantastical and early variety. Even though this story is told through a paranormal lens, it doesn’t shy away from exploring very real-world problems with a focus on those affecting today’s college students, such as drugs, discrimination, sexual assault, suicide, corruption and more. Needless to say, this is not one for the fainthearted.
And let’s not forget too how the protagonist presents an additional layer to these dynamics. Alex has been a survivor of abuse, a victim of trauma, and a witness to unspeakable horrors. These experiences have shaped her, influenced her actions and decisions. The narrative will occasionally flash back to her past, revealing a troubled childhood of dealing with her mysterious ability. Something terrible happens to her at twelve years old, setting her upon a path of self-destruction to try and drown out the memories and pain. We are given an intimate understanding of who Galaxy Stern is, what exactly it is that makes her tick. Even so, she can be standoffish and tough to warm up to, but just give her a chance to win you over and eventually I guarantee she’ll be storming her way into your heart.
All told, it’s clear that Ninth House won’t be for everyone, but I found that it worked for me. Speaking as an adult SFF reader who is also a big fan of Leigh Bardugo’s YA, the darker, grittier, and more mature tone of this novel was a stark but welcome change, one I personally felt was quite refreshing. There’s just something about this one that’s so real and from the heart, that despite its grimmer outlook and more macabre themes, I’m glad I read it.
Audiobook Comments: Both narrators did a great job, though I’m particularly fond of Lauren Fortgang’s work, and for me, her name and Leigh Bardugo’s audiobooks have become virtually inseparable. I love the way Fortgang brings Bardugo’s characters to life, and her stunning performance Ninth House has once more proven just how talented and versatile she is as a voice artist.