Ninth House was a Goodreads Best Fantasy Choice 2019.
I picked up Ninth House thinking it was YA fantasy. I only understood it as adult fiction by listening to the author interview at the end of the audiobook. I would have labeled it “new adult” because it deals with many of the same issues we find in YA, but more explicitly, and because the important characters are so young.
I was unaware of the kerfuffle surrounding the call for trigger warnings for Ninth House in 2019 because I don’t pay much attention to Twitter. I looked it up after finishing the second book in the series, Hell Bent.
“Her latest novel, her publisher would like you to know, is not YA. Ninth House is an impressive achievement, a book for adults that tackles many of the same themes as her earlier novels—the lingering specter of trauma, the lengths people go to survive, the power unjustly wielded by the wealthy at the expense of the supposedly powerless—but with more grit.” –Angela Lashbrook in Vice
This series takes place at Yale University, where old societies have a dark underbelly. They are the keepers of magic, and they use it to maintain privilege and power. This concept–making a deal with the devil to propel worldly success–is an old one. But placing it on an Ivy League university campus where privilege is a routine aspect of life, and using students to improve the lives of alumni is a fun take on the old trope. (Fun in that way that creepy demonic creatures and behaviors in books are enjoyable. I don’t want to suggest anyone would want to live this narrative.)
Alex (Galaxy) Stern had been a Los Angeles teen adrift in a sea of drugs, a drug-dealing boyfriend and a resistance to rehab. For reasons that become clear early in the book, at twenty, after surviving a multiple homicide, she’s offered a full ride to Yale and a position of power within the House of Lethe. Lethe monitors the activities of Yale’s eight other secret societies. (Thus it is the ninth house.) These societies perform occult rituals to get or to retain power among students and alumni. They do some pretty terrible things like drug and cut up street people in order to use them in rituals to foretell the future.
New Haven, Yale, and Privilege
Alex becomes Lethe’s ‘Dante’ and is learning the ways of magic as well as its history under the tutelage of Darlington, Lethe’s ‘Virgil.’ She’s been selected because she can see ghosts (called grays in the novel). The novel moves back and forth in time, winter to spring. We learn that Darlington is missing after some botched magic, and that Alex blames herself. Her goal is to retrieve him from wherever he might have landed–the borderlands or hell being two strong possibilities.
A girl is murdered in New Haven and her death is written off pretty quickly. She’s not a student, but something of a street girl. Which, of course, reminds Alex of herself. She feels the need to dig into the facts and finds help in the curmudgeonly cop Turner, who also doesn’t want to see the true killer to get away. More and more, it seems that the murder has something to do with the nine secret societies at Yale. More and more, it appears that many murdered/missing girls and young women of New Haven’s past are connected to the existence and rituals of the secret societies.
As Alex investigates the murder, she uses all sorts of magic available to her. Types of magic conveniently appear as needed. Nevertheless, the experience is hard for Alex because it pulls up PTSD. She flashes back to a number of harrowing experiences during her childhood and then as a young adult. Through her determination, she overcomes some of her past issues.
Hell Bent continues where Ninth House leaves off. Alex has to seek help from her friends at Yale. There’s Mercy, her roommate. Pamela Dawes, an introverted grad student working on her PhD, is Lethe’s ‘oculus,’ a research assistant who maintains safehouses. These and others work with Alex to stave off demons, vampires, and more. All while searching for a way to make Darlington whole again.
What’s great about Alex’s relationships with her friends is that they consistently come through for her. She learns a lot from Darlington, who seeks to protect her from the darker elements of the occult. Dawes saves her life more than once. Mercy trusts her even though some of her behavior is questionable. All this enables Alex to succeed in her missions. She is not the superhero upon whom everyone relies. This was the most enjoyable aspect of both books–that a young woman who had been through incredible trauma can figure out whom to trust and overcome her trauma in doing so.
Alex Stern Books and Trigger Warnings
With all the outcry about Ninth House needing trigger warnings, does this series belong in the high school library? (NB: I wouldn’t add this series to a collection for students younger than high school age.)
I think it’s fair to say that if you have Stephen King and Dean Koontz in your library, you’ve already got books with similar levels of trauma, violence, and gross stuff. I can see making a case for trigger warnings on the Alex Stern series–this might actually help high school libraries in serving their students–but if the industry decides to put warnings on the books, they should include those of male authors, a point that Bardugo has made herself.
Yet the Alex Stern series is different from King and Koontz horror novels; it’s about teen and young adult trauma, PTSD, survival and eventual healing. It might lift a teen who has experienced some dark things.
If You’d Like to Add Your Own Content Warning
Putting content warnings in the inside cover of books isn’t unreasonable, and a librarian might choose to do it. The warnings suggested on Twitter for Ninth House seem endless. But here are several reasonable warnings:
- A twelve-year-old girl is raped by a ghost in a public restroom.
- Because of her trauma, Alex has incidents of self harm.
- In flashbacks, Alex remembers traumatic details of her life with her drug dealer boyfriend.
- At least one of the very privileged boys is a serial rapist and he uses magical plants to induce compliance in his victims. (Alex uses the same magic against him in a gross punishment that might require a trigger warning itself.)
- There are mentions of penises and the use of the word ‘cock’ pretty regularly and a detailed description of a naked demon.
- Some of the supernatural beings are hell bent on revenge and the violence is described in detail.
Alex Stern and a Book 3
Hell Bent–which by the way, has a perfect book cover–ends with the call to a new quest. I won’t be reading anymore of the series should it arrive. (Fun fact–though Book 3 does not exist, it has a 4.83 star rating on Goodreads. Oh to be loved!) There is much in the books that encourages traumatized people to work through the darkness. There is success. The idea of an elite school and its wealthy patrons relying on magic and refusing to protect the surrounding community from itself is a great metaphor for the reality of privilege. But the books are overlong. Alex’s unrealistic, repeated opportunities to get things right, to help others and right the wrongs against them have grown wearisome. The repeated trips to hell are starting to feel gratuitous. In short, though I enjoyed much, I’m burnt out.