Desert Isle Keeper
The 1800 freshman matriculated at Yale University are likely a storied bunch. Over 35,000 applied to the famed Ivie–those accepted were likely the rock stars of their high schools with sky-high SATs and absurdly impressive resumes. None of them however have the talent that garners Galaxy “Alex” Stern, the protagonist of Leigh Bardugo’s splendid novel Ninth House, entry into New Haven’s hallowed halls. None of them see ghosts.
Alex can not only see ghosts–Greys–she can interact with them. The Greys made her life a misery, one that she’d tried escaping by becoming a drug using–and dealing–high school dropout. All that changed when Alex, recovering in a hospital bed from an horrific violent incident, woke to see a dean from Yale there to offer her a full ride at the school. The catch? She’ll use her wraith watching skills to help the Lethe Society, one of Yale’s famously mysterious secret societies.
The fictional Lethe is the ninth house and, unlike the other societies in the book, is a product of Bardugo’s astonishingly inventive imagination. In Ninth House, the renowned prestigious and powerful clubs–Skull and Bones, Manuscript, Aurelian, Scroll and Key, Wolf’s Head, Book and Snake, St. Elmo’s, and Berzelius–each channel, via ritual, a particular brand of magic. Skull and Bones specializes in divination, Scroll and Key in portal magic, Wolf’s Head in shapeshifting, Manuscript in glamours, Aurelian in logomancy, Book and Snake in necromancy, and St. Elmo’s in elemental magic. (Berzelius is inept.) Lethe House’s charter is to oversee these magical machinations.
Alex and the other two current members of Lethe, golden boy Darlington and socially awkward Dawes, are tasked with ensuring when the other societies use magic, nothing unexpected happens. Alex’s ability to see Greys–unheard of even in the magical world–means, among other things, she can monitor and, in theory, prevent the undead from disrupting the rituals.
In the book’s first chapter Alex, running late, arrives in a hidden classroom to watch the quarterly prognostication by Skull and Bones.
All eyes were on the Haruspex, his lean face hidden behind a surgical mask, pale blue robes spattered with blood. His latex-gloved hands moved methodically through the bowels of the—patient?…
…she focused her gaze on some middle distance as the Haruspex called out a series of numbers and letters—stock symbols and share prices for companies traded publicly on the New York Stock Exchange. Later in the night he’d move on to the NASDAQ, Euronext, and the Asian markets. Alex didn’t bother trying to decipher them. The orders to buy, sell, or hold were given in impenetrable Dutch, the language of commerce, the first stock exchange, old New York, and the official language of the Bonesmen. When Skull and Bones was founded, too many students knew Greek and Latin. Their dealings had required something more obscure.
Terrifyingly, the Greys watching the ritual almost derail it and Alex–and only Alex–hears a deafening sound of something terrifying knocking from some other world. Afterwards, as she walks home, Alex learns that a townie named Tara has been brutally murdered. Alex thinks there’s a connection but is told to ignore it–Tara’s not a Yalie. The night’s events launch a ferociously irresistible plot rife with danger, drugs, arcane enchantments, adulation, and betrayal.
The novel is as gripping a thriller as any I’ve read. The story moves brilliantly between three timelines all of which we experience through Alex. This is a gift. Alex is an outsider, a So-Cal loser whose sees Yale as both her savior and one fucked up place. Whether she’s communicating with The Bridegroom, New Haven’s most famous and allegedly murderous ghost, trying to fit in with her advantaged classmates, or fighting for her life, she holds the reader’s interest implacably. I could read about the adventures of Galaxy Stern all day long–thank the gods book two, Hell Bent, comes out in January.
The world she inhabits is vividly limned by Bardugo. Her magic infused New Haven is every bit as intricate and credible as her Ketterdam. She blends our world with hers, name checking the famous and powerful of alums of the different societies-Jodie Foster from Manuscript, Dr. Spock from Wolf’s Head, Cole Porter from Scroll and Key, both Bush presidents from Skull and Bones–so well the reader loses track of which is which. (Bardugo is a Yale graduate and while there was a member of Wolf’s Head.)
Ninth House is an almost flawless read. I read it last year and then again this week. Both times, I resented my time away from its pages. I can’t recommend it enough.