Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Let's start with a few things that are relevant about me in the context of this review:
1) I've never read a Leigh Bardugo book before. I still plan to read her YA series (on my print shelf);
2) I like dark fantasy or grimdark as it's commonly called. I also enjoy explicit authors like Laurell K. Hamilton and (more recently) Marlon James;
3) I'm a recovered drug addict who hasn't used in 16 years.
So here's the thing, I went into this book wanting adult urban fantasy. Reading the blurb it sounds like the perfect 'Mel' book. Rituals, murder, ghosts, and a whole lot of darkness. What I got instead was disjointed characters, tolerable plot, and weak attempts at darkness. All that said the last 25% is much better than the first 75%. Unfortunately the last paragraph is so corny and lame (setting up book 2) that I nearly gave myself a stroke rolling my eyes into the back of head. Let's break it down into pieces:
One of the decent things about Bardugo's first adult novel is that the plot is not bad. It's not perfect, and could use some work in places; but overall I'd say it was strong enough to carry the book forward. The biggest issue I had was that our list of murder suspects was weak at best; and with limited character development it was tough to think it could be any one of them given how little we knew about them. Which brings me to...
This is the crux of what is wrong with Ninth House in my opinion. Bardugo has given us a leading gal that we are supposed to feel sympathy for. Instead I just felt annoyed. She's a whining wuss at first; and later she feels fake and unrealistic. I mean, Bardugo wants us to believe that a girl who has seen ghosts her whole life, is a major drug user and recently ran with very rough crowds is afraid of... well frankly... anything? I like that she has a healthy fear of the ghosts; but her fear of the people and power surrounding her just doesn't fit. She shouldn't care; there is no threat of jail over her head so what exactly does Lethe have on her to make her co-operate? I never did figure that out. And what was Bardugo thinking making our gal's mentor missing from page one?!
Then there is our sidekick man who is an interesting, albeit missing (literally) character. As we only see him in flashbacks he doesn't feel like he's an integral part of the story at first. As his importance is amped up in the end I'd have liked more time to understand him as a person. Instead we spend a lot of time with a clean-cut cop who, ironically, is probably my favourite chracter.
Our cop is not a magic user of any kind. Instead he's just your average guy that got offered a lot of money to work for a secret society. Not only is he the most realistic character but he's also the only one whose actions always feel perfect for his personality.
Wrapping all that up with some weak women, except maybe one lady near the end, we get a bunch of typical, preppy Yale girls and scuzzy Yale boys. No thanks to any of them.
Let's get to one of my biggest pet peeves about Ninth House. Bardugo gives us a lead gal whose life is worth nothing; and then she suddenly gets an opportunity to attend Yale and be a part of a network of secret societies. Neat, I guess. But wheres the authenticity of her recent drug use? There's no cravings of any kind, no mention of withdrawl time, and no actual addiction symptoms (like shaking hands, excessive sweating, twitching, etc). The one thing Bardugo did get right is giving our lead gal an obvious motive for her drug use and descent into a personal hell as a teenager.
Sticking with possible trigger events; there's a rape scene that is well written. But, like the drug use, there is a lack of follow-through with the types of emotional scars an event like that leaves on someone. Where's the specific fear and follow-up? We feel it in the flashbacks at times but I never felt like our gal was as afraid as she should be. Or maybe she just relies on magical wards too much...
The core issue for me is that the thoughts of our characters don't match up with the trauma they've experienced.
Snakes, Secret Socities & Sorcery
Yep we've got lots of secret socities (nine surprisingly, lol) on campus at Yale and we have exactly ZERO actual snakes. I cannot even begin to tell you how frustrating this was for me (put a snake on a cover and then don't even feature one live snake!). What's perhaps worse is our lead gal has snake tattoos that are referenced but never explained. I wanna know why she chose snakes! I feel like this is a piece of her emotional self that is key (see character issues above). Perhaps Bardugo has no tattoos; but for myself (and most I know) tattoos have symbolism, meaning and value. Understanding the tattoos of our gal might have helped with the weak emotional connection I felt to her. It's a clear lost opportunity to give our leading gal some emotional substance that she carries with her everyday.
As for the magic there were some really well put together rituals and overall ambience of each attempt to use said magic. I was enjoying the use of Latin (and other) language use; right up until Bardugo translates some Latin to "fuck". Am I actually expected to believe there is a direct translation to fuck in Latin? Come on. Have some respect for your readers Bardugo and give us a proper translation. We can infer from there the meaning or impact of the words. This moment is one of many that stood out to me as ridiculous for an adult book (maybe you'd do it in a YA one...).
Truth Peppered Throughout
The absolute best thing in Ninth House is Bardugo's use of real events. From a skeleton found following Hurricane Sandy to the layout of Yale campus to the stories of hauntings or other happenings on said campus. Her incorporation of true historical tidbits shows a commitment to story telling that I admire. If only the rest of the story, especially our lead gal's drug use, was as genuine as the tiny side moments we are given.
This line, from the book, perhaps sums up best what I think Bardugo is trying to say in Ninth House:
"magic wasn't something gilded and benign, just another commodity that only some people could afford."
Let's face it, huamns will market and monopolize everything and anything in the end. We've done it with animals, nature, commodities and even our fellow human beings. Of course we are going to do it with something as powerful as ritual magic.
In this same vein Bardugo sets up a good showing of the dispartity between the poor and the rich, the educated and the non, and the Yale elite to the rest of the world. She uses this to help the reader understand the classes of ghosts out lead gal encounters. It's clear that Bardugo wants to make a statement about privilege and I believe that is something she succeeded with in Ninth House.
This is a 3-star book at best for me. I didn't hate it; but I didn't really like it. I might have DNF'd it if not for it being so hyped and my desire to be able to speak to the entire book. It feels a little too 'YA' if you will. While the dark events are there, the characters emotions and reactions don't feel genuine to go along with those plot points. Perhaps Bardugo is a great YA writer (I'll get to her other books, promise) but her skill as an adult urban fantasy writer is mediocre at best. I wanted more from the characters, from the magic, from the circumstances and above all from the promised darkness of a world filled with ghosts, demons and ritual sacrifice.
In the end I feel like this line (ironically) from Ninth House sums up my experience:
"you were all excited, and by page two you realize it's a lot of words and not much drama."
The final question left to be asked: will I read book two?
I don't think I will bother. Particarly given the ridiculous premise of what the next book will focus on. I actually laughed out loud at how chessy and silly the final lines are. I mean, if Bardugo can't portray a tiny piece of what hell on Earth is like even for a recent drug user, I don't expect her to do any better in any other dark setting that she brings forward in the series.
Am I being tricked into reading this because there might be snakes and then there aren’t? This happens a lot. Us snake lovers want good fiction too where our hissing babies are on top and not always evil.
Whom I kidding everyone, including me, will read this no matter the content. 😂
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