The Snake Uncoiled: A Glimpse into Leigh Bardugo’s “Ninth House”

While I will refrain from including any spoilers in this review, I do want to quickly list out some trigger warnings for the novel (which will also be mentioned in this post). Please remember to be mindful of your limits and mental wellbeing; unlike Bardugo’s other works, Ninth House is intended for Adult audiences. 

Some trigger warnings for the novel include: rape of a child (on page); sexual assult (on and off page); physical abuse (on and off page); drug use and addiction (on and off page); gore/blood (on page); a brief mention of a car crash (not described in detail); and death (on and off page). This review will discuss Bardugo’s treatment of sexual trauma in Ninth House in detail. While it is not voyeuristic or romanticised, it is honest and that makes it graphic — so it’s okay if you can’t/don’t want to read this book!

Let’s start this blog off with a bang, shall we?

I have been waiting for Ninth House to fall into my clutches for years. I remember digging through Leigh Bardugo’s website and coming across a brief plot synopsis and, to my disgust, no trace of a release date; as you can imagine, the excitement in my stomach has been bubbling away for a while.

Still, part of me was apprehensive. The Grishaverse has held a near and dear place in my heart for a long time. I had no doubt Leigh’s writing would be up to its usual fantastic standard – she has never failed to amaze – but beyond that I had no idea what to expect when I stepped into this new world of hers. Was I really going to give two shits about Yale’s secret societies, even in the hands of my favourite author?

(If you have already dipped your toe into the world of Ninth House, you are doubtlessly cackling at my foolish past-self).

How could I have ever doubted Leigh goddamn Bardugo? Ninth House plucks expensive whiskey glasses from affluent, white secret society members and chucks them at other affluent, white secret society members. It is a gritty piece of coal among useless diamonds and it burns like one. It is unlike anything I have ever read, and has quickly established itself as one of my favourite books with some of my favourite characters. It is a labyrinth of plot and puzzles and characters who are not all that they seem. You must be content to sit with the discomfort of your blindness while navigating this structurally complex novel.

From the get-go, we are presented with three major puzzles: 1) Who murdered Tara Hutchins?; 2) Where is Darlington?; 3) Who is Galaxy “Alex” Stern, and what happened to her?

Too straightforward for you? Let’s throw some magic into the mix for good measure.

“It was one thing to be told magic existed, quite another to have it literally give you the finger.” (p. 305)

She had become distracted by her letter. By the time Leigh realised she hadn’t raised her head in a hot minute, it was too late – she didn’t recognise her surroundings at all. She turned about, and her gaze fell on something she had never seen before, but still somehow evoked an uncanny feeling of the familiar. Her gaze fell on what looked like magic.

Book and Snake, 2005. Taken from Wikipedia.

Upon further research, Bardugo discovered that she had stumbled across the clubhouse of the Book and Snake, one of the ‘Ancient Eight’ secret societies at Yale. While she does not cite this moment as the inspiration for Ninth House, Leigh does describe it as the moment that Yale campus and New Haven in general became a place full of magic for her. In her opinion, all lovers of fantasy “have this sense for the magical seeping into the ordinary world, and we just want more of it.” Anyone well practised in testing the backs of wardrobes will understand that desire to find hidden magic, and continue to believe that somewhere, it’s out there – you must only find the right wardrobe.

Darlington has that same ache for magic that readers do. The one difference between you and Darlington though? He finds it. He is similar to Alex in that way, I think. I am reminded of a quote from one of Bardugo’s previous works, Crooked Kingdom: “We learn to wring magic from the ordinary […] When the world owed you nothing, you demanded something of it anyway.” 

And in the world of Ninth House, magic permeates into reality in such a way that it becomes difficult to tell one from the other. “I wanted to build this world where you really couldn’t distinguish between the real and the imagined,” Leigh explains. “I want people to feel like there’s magic everywhere.”  This blurring of fiction and reality grows even more confusing when you realise how much of Ninth House is, in fact, cold hard truth. Take, for example, the skeleton unearthed in 2012, tangled in the roots of a tree that was blown over during Hurricane Sandy. New Haven is a bonkers place in and of itself, making it the perfect place for Leigh’s magic to take root and bloom.

“Maybe all rich people asked the wrong questions. For people like Alex, it would never be what do you want. It was always just how much can you get?(p. 84)

Magic, however, is not something that comes with no strings attached. It’s another form of power, is it not? And there is no way to write honestly about magic, or an institution like Yale, without looking at notions of privilege, power, race, or gender. For Leigh “magic is a commodity”  and she wanted to explore how it would affect the college world to control who did and did not have access to it. What is the price of magic, who pays it, who is willing to pay it? What is the human cost?

You don’t have to wait very long to find out any of these answers; at the very beginning of the story, we witness what it is exactly these people use magic for during a prognostication, which involves rifling through literal guts in order to predict the future. But you can be sure none of the society members are volunteering themselves for this gig. Instead, some unsuspecting patient is borrowed from a nearby hospital. And for what, you may ask? For the betterment of humanity? 

Actually, it’s for information on the stock market. 

We have found Narnia and it’s a capitalist hellscape.

There were moments when I wanted to reach into the pages and throttle characters — could they not spare even some of their power to save the environment or something? But such is life. Those with such power and privilege are quite happy to hoard their nuts like bitter squirrels. 

All the more reason to fall desperately in love with Alex Stern, the antithesis of the culture of power and privilege at Yale.

Leigh did her damnedest to make Galaxy as isolated as humanly possible. She describes Alex as having had all of her threads severed, and that doesn’t just refer to her life at Yale; she is disconnected from any sort of culture or religion on both sides of her family, and the only people who have remained constants in her life are her mother, and Alex herself. “I wanted her to have to start to draw together and build a network of threads for herself, to give her strength by the end of the story,” says Leigh. “She comes from a background that has not equipped her for this place of magic and privilege.” 

But the little connection that Alex has to her Latinx heritage does end up saving her at one point. She knows a little bit of Ladino, which she learned from her late grandmother. In her interview on the Write Or Die podcast, Leigh describes Ladino as a language close to death (fitting for Ninth House, no?) but a beautiful one, a “combination of Spanish, Hebrew, and sometimes Greek and other languages.” She explains that many death ballads survive in Ladino. In fact, the epigraph of Ninth House is a Sephardic ballad of mourning called “Death and the Girl”. While Bardugo hinted that Alex’s heritage will play a bigger role in subsequent books, she also “didn’t want the person [she] was endowing with this much power to be white.” 

“Alex Stern was not what she seemed.” (p. 181)

Alex, of course, is the person most conscious of the fact that she does not ‘belong’ at Yale, that she is navigating a world built for the ease of others; thus the Alex we meet at the beginning of Ninth House is an Alex wearing a carefully-crafted mask, with the muted persona to match. She is a girl who is trying to do everything she can to bury her past, and her past-self. “[T]he truth of who she is and what she can do is very different from the person she’s trying to present at the beginning of this story,” says Leigh. But as the novel goes on, a hurricane appears, and Alex’s past in unearthed, caught in the roots of a fallen tree. The mask slips at last, and we discover the real Galaxy Stern.

“The snake inside Alex stopped twitching and uncoiled.” (p. 205)

Ninth House is not a comfortable book to read. It is honest in its handling of power, privilege, trauma, and that makes it, at times, shocking. It is not, however, a book of one-dimensional misery tourism. “I didn’t come here to make you comfortable,” Bardugo states simply. “I came here to write a book that’s going to f*ck you up a little.” 

One of the most uncomfortable but, in my opinion, invaluable honesties in Ninth House is Bardugo’s navigation through the experiences of someone who has been a victim of sexual trauma.

[Please note that I am not a voice for all victims of sexual trauma, and can only speak to my own experience. It is not my intention to put words in the mouth of any victim. Everyone’s experiences are different.]

Leigh explains that she wanted to “explore trauma through the lens of someone enduring it, surviving it, and then conquering it,”  which she believes takes more than just the span of one or two pages. There is no quick fix to the conquering of any sort of trauma — “it’s something that has to be explored day by day for the rest of your life.” The idea that Alex could discover some miracle ‘cure’ for her trauma by mastering magic would be dishonest to the reality of what it means to be a survivor of sexual trauma. For a reader who has experienced any sort of trauma in their lives, it would simply leave them to wonder, “Am I not deserving of a hero’s narrative?” when their own demons cannot be defeated in the same way. 

This is one of the key features that distinguishes Ninth House as a work of Adult fiction as opposed to YA. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely adore Young Adult fiction and am a big believer in its literary merit. But part of YA’s appeal is its inherent optimism; the characters make it through a revolution or their last year of school, and then? A reader’s imagination can take over and fill in their happily ever after. Adult fiction leaves you with different questions, different impressions. It asks you what survival will look like on a day-to-day basis for the rest of your life. 

Yet I reiterate: Ninth House does not operate on a basis of misery tourism. It is honest, but not needlessly bleak. It may not initially sound like it, but there is actually a lot of hope in the book, though the author describes it as “a very angry kind of hope.” 

“Alex didn’t have money. But she did have power. She’d been afraid of it, afraid of staring directly at that blood-soaked night […] But when she’d finally looked? Let herself remember? Well, maybe there was something broken and shrivelled in her, because she felt only a deep calm in knowing what she was capable of.” (p. 314)

Galaxy “Alex” Stern, by Mélanie Bourgeois. Used with permission from the artist.

Alex is an angry character. Her sharp tongue and quick retorts are clever, but as Turner points out, undeniably aggressive. Though she tries to hide herself and her past, to rewrite who she is in order to fit in at Yale, that anger, that fury, remains a constant. The story marches on and Alex begins to come to terms with what has happened to her. And bit by bit, the mask begins to fall away, the anger turns to a useful source of energy and drive, and Alex trusts herself to follow her gut and find out the truth about the murder of Tara Hutchins. Coming to accept how trauma has changed her, instead of letting it sit in her gut and poison her, makes Alex an incredibly inspiring character to me. She is no one’s hero but her own, with her own moral compass and sense of justice and loyalty, and she cuts through the bullshit airs and graces of Yale and all its merry men to get to the truth. No one fought for her, but she’ll be damned if someone doesn’t fight for Tara Hutchins.

Alex’s experiences are not written off as being part of some ‘greater plan’. No — Alex takes these traumas and endures them, survives them, and lives through another day. That is a hope victims can hold on to, and realistically strive towards. 

So how should you feel when you finish Ninth House? Well, Bardugo wants you to feel like you’re “ready to burn shit down.” So let that snake uncoil, dear reader, and go burn your demons to ashes. 

Want to know more? These might be useful:

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