“And, for an instant, she stared directly into those soft blue eyes and knew, with an instinctive mammalian certainty, that the exceedingly rich were no longer even remotely human.” — William Gibson, "Count Zero"
Ivy League secret societies have long been the locus of mystery, wealth and the possibility of event-influencing privilege along with a whole lot of speculation and curiosity. (Some of us, for example, are still wondering about George H.W. Bush’s record of being in Skull and Bones.)
In “Ninth House,” her adult debut, the increasingly famous young adult author Leigh Bardugo, herself a member of a secret society at Yale, imagines the societies as possessed of genuine magic.
To wit: Alex Stern is a freshman at Yale, but by all logic, she definitely shouldn’t be.
She doesn’t come from wealth, had a sketchy, hippie-ish upbringing in Southern California, got hooked on all sorts of drugs and involved with the sort of extremely dangerous folks who often come with the drugs and ended up in the hospital, the lone survivor of a grim multiple homicide.
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This is where she is found by the members of Lethe House, a secret society that keeps an eye on the other magic-using secret societies, aka the "Houses of the Veil." Lethe acts as a combination of internal affairs and fixers for the other houses. (Think Olivia Pope’s crew as magical cleaner-uppers.)
You see, Alex can see ghosts (or “Greys”) unaided by magic. She's been able to do this since she was very young. It almost drove her mad, but it also makes her very valuable indeed to Lethe.
Her mentor, Darlington, is an insufferable fellow in many ways but is possessed of a singular charisma, the sort of this-country-was-made-for-people-like-me charisma that one sometimes encounters in the very wealthy and very WASP. He serves as Alex in her exploration of magic, determined to make her as useful as possible. But then, Darlington vanishes and a young woman from New Haven named Tara Hutchins is found dead on Yale grounds.
Tara was a townie, no big deal — this was, to the Yalies, the death of a non-person. But something about the crime's savage violence, not to mention the callous manner in which Tara was regarded, keeps bugging Alex. She needs to figure out what happened to this woman, what happened to Darlington and what, if anything, it has to do with these secret societies whose magic can alter markets and start wars fought by folks who will never know the instigators' names.
Alex is a blast; she's damaged goods on the mend, more a street-wise, de facto PI well versed in life’s seamier side than a traditional witch or type-A WASP.
And yes, in some ways, “Ninth House” is "Harry Potter" transferred from middle and high school to the Ivies. Much like the young wizards at Hogwarts, each House of the Veil practices a slightly different kind of magic, and none of them do it flawlessly. Mistakes, grim ones, abound.
Though set in one of the toniest places in America, “Ninth House” is an excellent example of “urban fantasy” or “the new weird,” a sort of cross-genre way of writing fantasy that dates roughly from the 1990s. This is fantasy emphasizing real-world settings rather than far-off lands. (Many think of Neil Gaiman’s groundbreaking comic book series “Sandman” or Alan Moore’s comic book character John Constantine as prime movers in this subgenre, but others may disagree.)
Much as, say, “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” made concrete the idea of high school being a portal to Hell, “Ninth House” leans into a somewhat gothy mix of fantasy, noir and magic-as-allegory-for-privilege. (In fact, Alex feels like a druggy, somewhat low-life version of Buffy pitted against magic users straight out of HBO’s “Succession.”)
Bardugo is a terrific plotter; the story clips along yet allows for clearly drawn characters. She expertly shifts forward and backward in time, building the plot and the magic chapter by chapter.
But it’s Alex who powers this story, and Alex I look forward to reading about again.