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. (Goodreads)
Let me preface this with I LOVE Six of Crows. So, based on that fact I expected to LOVE this book too. Especially given that everything about this book was right up my reading alley. Supernatural vibes. Gothic themes. Victorian ghosts. Magical societies.
I mean, this book is basically reading candy for adult fans of Harry Potter. And just look at that cover, it’s beautiful.
So, ultimately I expected to love this book. I bought Ninth House as soon as it came out in October of last year and I am finally reading it now, nearly a year later. That’s because I tried to start this book three times and just couldn’t get into it.
I’m going to start with the most obvious thing that stood out to me reading this – it needed trigger warnings. Alex Stern, the main character, is a survivor of trauma and abuse and her story explores a lot of dark themes. Warnings include rape, drug use, overdose, murder, sexual assualt of minors and adults, date rape drugs, and gore.
I mention these warnings for people who may be triggered by this content and also for young people who may have come to this book from Bardugo’s Young Adult novels expecting something similar. It is an adult novel that deals with very heavy adult themes that may not be appropriate for some.
That being said, I loved certain elements and didn’t like many others. The world was beautiful. It gave me dark Gothic vibes with old mausoleums, Victorian ghosts, and old secret societies. Bardugo sprinkled in history and geography to make the campus come to life for someone who has never been to New Haven or Yale. I really enjoyed the world building and the concept of old secret societies actually being societies of magic that affect everything that happens in the world. It did get confusing at parts when it came to remembering which society did what, but overall I enjoyed the world.
Also, the fact this book read like a mystery novel was a pleasant surprise that made me very happy. This book is centered around a murder and Alex’s investigation of it, and the use of that plot line with all the fantasy elements was one of the most enjoyable elements of this book (and probably the only really enjoyable element for me). The way that Bardugo brings all the elements together at the end to solve the mystery is also a credit to her writing craft. Where I expected some elements, there were others that came out of nowhere and the ultimate conclusion was a complete curve ball.
I did have problems with the pacing and the non-linear method of storytelling. At the beginning you get thrown right into the world with Alex and it is a bit confusing (one of the reasons I struggled to start this book three times), but as you keep reading the storyline goes back and forth between Spring and Winter. It gives us the backstory of how Alex got to Yale mixed with current events. The problem is that I spent a good chunk of the first part of the book wondering what the hell was going on. My sticky notes in the book are literally just covered in question marks and ‘what the hell is happening?’ comments. Because honestly, sometimes I had no clue what was going on in the beginning of this book. I feel like we needed that backstory earlier to understand where we were at.
Additionally, this disrupted the character development. We only get Darlington through minimal flashbacks and we get all of Alex’s story through flashbacks. So, in some ways we get multiple versions of her depending on the timeline and it feels disconnected. Specifically, the Alex of Winter (the present storyline) does not feel like the same Alex we get in all of her flashbacks. I guess I just expected that given her past she would have more of a backbone and have a bit more substance as a character, but she was kind of whiny and annoying at times. Which brings me back to the elements I mentioned as trigger warnings. They really didn’t feel like they had any affect on Alex as a person. These horrible and dark things happened in her past and we read about them, but I didn’t see the impact on her. The Alex at Yale feels like a completely different Alex than the one before Yale.
I also really didn’t care for any of the other characters. Writing this I barely remember their names. Except Oculus (aka Pammie). I absolutely loved her – from her dissertation on tarot cards, to her initial dislike of everyone, to her ginger hair (I may like her because I basically just described myself).
There was a cop, a dean of the school, some of Alex’s roommates, a murdered chick, and a plethora of students whose names I could not be bothered to remember. Oh! And a dead Victorian ghost who haunted Alex. He was cool.
One of my favourite things about Bardugo’s writing is her characters. Every character in Six of Crows is so unique and she characterizes all of them with distinct characteristics, styles, and manners of speech that made me fall in love with each and every one of them. This didn’t happen in this book.
Where was the witty dialogue? I wanted Kaz level wit from at least one of these characters and got literally nothing. Alex felt very one dimensional despite such a deep history, Darlington was characterized more through Alex’s memory than anything, and everyone else was just meh. Just one big ol’ meh.
It’s not a bad book, but it really wasn’t for me. Which was disappointing because I really wanted to like this book. I don’t see myself carrying on with the story. I might Google a summary after to find out what happens out of interest, but I’m not invested enough in the characters to continue on.
If you like Bardugo’s other novels, it might be worth taking a read, but don’t go in with high expectations because you will be gravely disappointed.
Have you read Ninth House? Did you love it or did you also feel let down by expectations? I’d love to talk more about it in the comments below.