Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo, Review: Engrossing epic

Ninth House, Leigh Bardugo’s impressive adult debut is an engrossing epic, a multi-layered and deeply human fantasy novel. Read my full review.

Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo, Review - Alex Stern #1
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Ninth House Book Synopsis

Alex Stern, Book 1

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.

“Bardugo’s imaginative reach is brilliant, and this story―full of shocks and twists―is impossible to put down.” – Stephen King

(Flatiron Books, 2019)

Genre: Fantasy, Mystery, Drama, Action-Adventure, Thriller

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Book Review

With the sequel to this novel one of the most highly anticipated new releases of January 2023, I thought it high time I experienced for myself just what earned Leigh Bardugo’s adult debut Ninth House its worldwide bestselling status. It did not disappoint.

While I do not read a lot of fantasy, the type I most enjoy are stories tightly linked to or embedded within the ‘real world’. Ninth House’s Yale college setting steeped in history and notable alumni proved fertile ground for Bardugo’s skilful world-building and a stage large enough for her inspiringly ambitious mystery plot to play out credibly. 

But, what hooked me almost from the word go was her strikingly real characters. And, Ninth House introduces us to some real gems. (I’m resisting the urge to spoil any of the wonderfully surprising story arcs by mentioning my favourites.) Some are highly endearing, some are less so — but common to all is a strong and highly compelling survivor instinct. 

“They’d made the mistake of teaching him he could survive.” 

With a multi-first-person alternating narrative often told in reflection, Bardugo gifts readers time to peel back her characters’ layers; really get to know each of them in ways and circumstances that feel organic. Even the characters’ responses to the ‘magic’ they encounter somehow feel authentic. 


Related Reading: 33 Books About Time Travel, Parallel Words & Alternate Universes

Alex Stern’s traumatic backstory makes Ninth House very much an adult read, as does the violence and gore depicted. She is more than feisty, or even spiky. Her life experiences have left her world-weary beyond measure. 

“But would it have mattered if she’d been someone else? If she’d been a social butterfly, they would have said she liked to drink away her pain. If she’d been a straight-A student, they would have said she’d been eaten alive by her perfectionism. There were always excuses for why girls died.” 

But that has not entirely extinguished her will to survive, or even fight to right a few wrongs along the way… she has been underestimated for far too long.

The magic in Leigh Bardugo’s Ninth House extends well beyond the secret societies’ antics through to this story’s execution. It ranks as one of the most layered, gritty and engrossing mysteries I have read in a very long time. 

Now I join this author’s legion of fans eager to dive into the Ninth House sequel, Hell Bent.

BOOK RATING: The Story 5 / 5 ; The Writing 5 / 5

Get your copy of Ninth House (Alex Stern #1) from:

Bookshop US Amazon Booktopia AU In Audio
  • Book 2, Hell Bent (my review) is a wonderful read too. But you must start with Book 1!
  • If you are looking for spoilers, then I recommend this comprehensive Ninth House plot summary.
  • LitLovers offers a great list of Ninth House book club questions to kick start discussion.

Update: We now also highly recommend Leigh Bardugo’s latest novel The Familiar set in the Spanish Golden Age.

More Ninth House reviews

Ninth House is one of the best fantasy novels I’ve read in years. This book is brilliant, funny, raw and utterly magnificent—it’s a portal to a world you’ll never want to leave.” – Lev Grossman, New York Times bestselling author of The Magicians 

“With an aura of both enchantment and authenticity, Bardugo’s compulsively readable novel leaves a portal ajar for equally dazzling sequels.” – Kirkus Reviews (starred review)  

“Atmospheric…Part mystery, part story of a young woman finding purpose in a dark world.” – Booklist (starred review)  

“Genuinely terrific….The worldbuilding is rock solid, the plot is propulsive, and readers will be clamoring for a sequel as soon as they read the last page.” – Library Journal (starred review)

“Excellent….Bardugo gives (her protagonist) a thoroughly engaging mix of rough edge, courage and cynicism.” – Publishers Weekly (starred review)

More book quotes from Ninth House

“That was what magic did. It revealed the heart of who you’d been before life took away your belief in the possible.” 

Ninth House Book Quote - I class profanity with declarations of love. Best used sparingly and only when wholeheartedly meant.
Ninth House Book Quote – Love

“Alex felt something dark inside her uncoil. “You’re a flat beast,” Hellie had once said to her. “Got a little viper lurking in there, ready to strike. A rattler probably.” She’d said it with a grin, but she’d been right.” 

Ninth House Book Quote - All you children playing with fire, looking surprised when the house burns down...
Ninth House Book Quote – Playing with fire

“I want to survive this world that keeps trying to destroy me.” 

About the Author, Leigh Bardugo

Leigh Bardugo is a #1 New York Times bestselling author and the creator of the Grishaverse (now a Netflix series) which spans the Shadow and Bone trilogy, the Six of Crows duologyThe Language of Thorns, and the King of Scars duology—with more to come. Her other works include Wonder Woman: Warbringer and Ninth House (Goodreads Choice Winner for Best Fantasy 2019). She lives in Los Angeles and is an Associate Fellow of Pauli Murray College at Yale University. Check out her website and connect with her on Twitter.