Alex Stern feels distinctly out of place at Yale. She’s perpetually trying to catch up on school work and social commitments, all while acclimating to her work as a member of Lethe — one of Yale’s secret societies tasked with regulating the magic of the eight other societies, whose rituals range from weather changes to stock market prediction. As the narrative shifts back and forth between Alex’s perspective and that of her mentor, Darlington, readers begin to understand how Alex’s second chance at Yale slowly spiraled into chaos. Alex was offered the opportunity to attend the university after a brutal night in her Los Angeles apartment that leaves only her unscathed physically. She is chosen because of her ability to see Grays, or ghosts, which most people are unable to perceive without a magical elixir.
The world of Yale and its inhabitants is a change from Alex’s previous life as girlfriend to a drug dealer and a high-school dropout. Growing up with her flighty mother, she only felt secure with her grandmother, who spoke to her in Ladino. Yale offers the possibility of short- and long-term stability, but Alex struggles to find time to do all the class work on top of all her magical regulatory duties. At the beginning of the spring semester, a murder takes place on campus. Without Darlington to offer guidance, she goes a bit off book in order to follow her hunches. As she becomes increasingly aware of the secrets of the societies, she realizes that the world of Yale doesn’t operate so differently from the one she’s used to.
Location plays an integral role in Ninth House. The students of Yale live in a protected, privileged sphere while the residents of economically downtrodden New Haven are not afforded the same security. Alex tries to navigate this stark divide, which can be seen in the neglect of the city streets versus the groomed college campus — as well as in the way students are treated versus residents of the town — by advocating for the women she sees as left behind by the system. She feels a kinship with them because of their position within society.
This dichotomy between town and college further emphasizes the socioeconomic divisions that Alex sees operating in Yale and her larger world that keep age-old systems of oppression in place. The one thing that seems to cross all borders is drugs. Bardugo portrays magical and more mundane drugs in both of these spheres — from red solo cups to enchanted mist machines — and the reader watches parties reach new, often terrifying, heights that bring up the issue of consent and repercussions.
Ethical questions arise again and again for Alex, and she ultimately takes things into her own hands to mete out justice as she desperately looks for support. The power and prestige of a few is always just around the corner, waiting to bring Alex back down into what she perceives as ingongmity. But she is determined to make her situation at Yale permanent and secure a stable, safe future for herself. She won’t let the living or the dead stand in her way.
Simona is the Jewish Book Council’s managing editor of digital content and marketing. She graduated from Sarah Lawrence College with a concentration in English and History and studied abroad in India and England. Prior to the JBC she worked at Oxford University Press. Her writing has been featured in Lilith, The Normal School, Digging through the Fat, and other publications. She holds an MFA in fiction from The New School.