I want to be clear from the start that if this review (or rather, laundry list of complaints) about Leigh Bardugo's Ninth House seems strangely emotionally charged, you can lay one hundred percent of the blame on H.P. Lovecraft. I was reading The Call of Cthulhu and Other Short Stories last summer as my good friend was trying to convince me (not for the first time) to read The Secret History by Donna Tartt.
"It's dark academia," he promised me. "It's very good. I want to discuss it with you."
"Dark academia?" I liked the sound of that. After all, I was having a grand old time reading about Lovecraft's charming array of pretentious white men meddling in Things Which Are Best Left Alone and That Which the Mind Cannot and Should Not Ever Comprehend. I had the vague fancy that "dark academia" must be a veritable treasure trove of precocious college types reading the Necronomicon and having either wacky misadventures or being thrust into the same delightfully melodramatic horror that made The Call of Cthulhu so much fun.
I went and read a review of The Secret History and came back to my friend. "This sounds an awful lot like precocious college students doing dumb things. And not in the fun way where they're doing creepy rituals or getting driven crazy by the unknowable or anything like that."
"They do have rituals - basically orgies and stuff," my friend insisted. I resisted the temptation to ask him to tell me more.
So, naturally, when I heard about Ninth House, I thought that finally, my prayers had been answered. Here we have people practicing magic fueled by dead people at Yale - and sOmeOne's just bEen MurDEred, so we're going to have to solve the mystery right along with our inexperienced young protagonist! I immediately contacted my friend and said, "I've found a dark academia book that I actually want to read."
He replied, "Miranda, Ninth House is a YA book."
I kindly explained to him that, no, Leigh Bardugo had largely written young adult books in the past, but that this was a LEGITIMATE NOVEL FOR REAL GROWN-UPS LIKE YOURS TRULY. He was skeptical.
As much as I hate to admit it, I think that he was ultimately right. Though I was correct in telling my friend that Ninth House has technically been marketed as an adult debut, it reads like a YA novel that someone decided to "mature" by adding copious amounts of rape and violence. Don't get me wrong: I'm more than okay with a little grit in my novels, but I prefer my mature content to at least serve some kind of purpose. As such, I found Bardugo's depictions of rape particularly egregious. It's not appropriate to use sexual assault as a way to make your edgy protagonist's backstory a little more tragic, nor is it appropriate to depict the rape of her friend (who she otherwise fails to demonstrate any meaningful connection to) so you can show how awesome your main character is at getting elaborate revenge on people who've wronged her. If there had been a more thoughtful exploration of how these instances affected the characters' psyches (particularly in the case of Alex's friend, whose emotional turmoil was completely resolved by seeing her rapist humiliated) or meaningful commentary on the societal circumstances that allowed them to happen, I might be more accepting of their inclusion in the work.
The characters and their interactions are also highly reminiscent of a novel targeted at teenagers. I like the idea of Alex Stern as a protagonist: a girl with a rocky past and a sixth sense trying to make her way at an Ivy League school. As someone who's still a little bitter that all of the expensive private schools she applied to rejected her college applications, I thought I would love to see Yale get turned upside down by a girl who identifies with the "townies" over her privileged classmates. Unfortunately, Bardugo spends more time obsessing over what a badass Alex is and moping over her tragic backstory than she does developing the other characters. As much as I appreciated the aesthetic of Darlington, his perspective chapters were completely unnecessary except to allow Bardugo to emphasize how dangerous and sexy and mysterious Alex is. His only saving grace was dying/disappearing under mysterious circumstances before he could become a prospective love interest (though it looks like this is only the first book in a series, so maybe it's too early to breathe a sigh of relief). Aside from Darlington, Dawes came the closest to what I had hoped to get out of Ninth House - a true magic nerd whose friendship with Alex is almost convincing (if Alex ever showed more than superficial concern for anyone around her). The adult characters (with the possible exceptions of Turner and the Bridegroom) are unconvincing and seem to exist primarily to drive home the central theme about how people like Alex can't count on grown-ups - ahem, I mean, "the system".
The portrayal of this message was probably the weakest aspect of the book. Despite the fact Bardugo spends the entire novel lamenting - and not in a subtle fashion - about how all of the adults at Yale let the privileged students get away with everything and don't help anyone unless it somehow furthers their sinister purposes, Alex herself seems to show remarkably little concern for those around her. Most of the "selfless" actions she takes stem not from any sort of genuine altruism on her part, but because the predicaments of others remind her of society's unavenged transgressions against her. I'm not saying that it's wrong to write about a character with such sordid motives, but it did frustrate me how Bardugo glorified her intentions and had the gall to suggest that deep down, she was somehow better than any of the other characters. I find this kind of unintentional self-centeredness to be a hallmark of the YA protagonist.
Furthermore, the themes about challenging conventional power structures seemed rather on-the-nose at times and strangely untethered from reality - almost as if Bardugo was writing for an audience that couldn't figure it out for themselves if she didn't tell them outright and in a ridiculously exaggerated way (i.e. teenagers). The worldbuilding makes sense if you look at it from a young person's perspective (like Divergent makes sense when you read it in middle school), but as a non-quite adult, I ask myself, "Why is Dawes seemingly the only person who's writing extremely erudite analyses of magic at Yale at the moment? Why would all these student-led magical fraternities depend on the oversight of an organization that is apparently also largely student-run? You'd think all the powerful old white guys at the helm of Yale throughout its history wouldn't be leaving the exploration of magic solely to their pupils - yet we don't really see any eccentric old professors studying magic outside of the societies, only alumni coming back to reap the spoils. Why does no one seem to use magic for anything other than money, sex, shits (literally), and giggles?" It's disturbing to me how little genuine academic curiosity in the arcane seems to exist at this fictional Yale (and no, I don't consider the library in Lethe's temple or Dawes's and Darlington's hobbies to be satisfactory evidence of such sentiments).
I think Ninth House could have been great. I just wish that the author had approached her subject matter in a way that was as mature as the more explicit content.