Book of the Month: Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo (2019)

Critical Evaluation

“When a writer sets a fantasy novel in our dusty old real world, the general approach is: “Everything cruddy just like it is now, except, also magic!” The intrusion of magic is then generally used to make sense of inexplicable or terrible things in our world, for example, why the stock market does stuff. And cancer. It also is used to explain the sadness that young people feel. If only there were an enormous secret lurking just out of sight, providing meaning and conveying specialness upon the knower. …

The latest entrant into the wonderful and ever-growing library of “like here but magical!” literature is Leigh Bardugo’s “Ninth House,” set on the Yale campus in New Haven, that creepy old witchland. The secret societies there, like Scroll and Key and Skull and Bones, each have an array of magical powers that rich young people have been abusing for generations. (This explains the frankly quite bizarre architecture of Yale better than “rich people sure are weird.”) In “Ninth House,” the university’s secret societies are being watched by a powerful and even more secret society, Lethe.

Sicha, Choire, “Leigh Bardugo Brews a Witchy Tale of Ghosts, Dark Magic and Murder,” The New York Times, October 8, 2019.


First Excerpt

Alex had discovered the pamphlet of Lethe House guidelines sometime in the blurred weeks after the incident at the mansion on Orange. She had checked her email only once since then on the Hutch’s old desktop, seen the long string of messages from Dean Sandow, and logged off. She’d let the battery run down on her phone, ignored her classes, watched the branches sprout leaves at the knuckles like a woman trying on rings. She ate all the food in the pantries and freezer—the fancy cheeses and packs of smoked salmon first, then the cans of beans and syrup-soaked peaches in boxes marked emergency rations. When they were gone, she ordered takeout aggressively, charging it all to Darlington’s still-active account. The trip down and up the stairs was tiring enough that she had to rest before she tore into her lunch or dinner, and sometimes she didn’t bother to eat at all, just fell asleep in the window seat or on the floor beside the plastic bags and foil-wrapped containers. No one came to check on her. There was no one left.

The pamphlet was cheaply printed, bound with staples, a black-and-white picture of Harkness Tower on the cover, We Are the Shepherds printed beneath it. She doubted the Lethe House founders had Johnny Cash in mind when they’d chosen their motto, but every time she saw those words she thought of Christmastime, of lying on the old mattress in Len’s squat in Van Nuys, room spinning, a half-eaten can of cranberry sauce on the floor beside her, and Johnny Cash singing, We are the shepherds, we walked ’cross the mountains. We left our flocks when the new star appeared. She thought of Len rolling over, sliding his hand under her shirt, murmuring into her ear, “Those are some shitty shepherds.”

The guidelines for Lethe House candidates were located near the back of the pamphlet and had last been updated in 1962
High academic achievement with an emphasis on history and chemistry.

Facility with languages and a working knowledge of Latin and Greek.

Good physical health and hygiene. Evidence of a regular fitness regimen encouraged.

Exhibits signs of a steady character with a mind toward discretion.

An interest in the arcane is discouraged, as this is a frequent indicator of an “outsider” disposition.

Should demonstrate no squeamishness toward the realities of the human body.
Mors vincit omnia.

Alex—whose knowledge of Latin was less than working—looked it up: Death conquers all. But in the margin, someone had scrawled irrumat over vincit, nearly obliterating the original with blue ballpoint pen.

Beneath the Lethe requirements, an addendum read: Standards for candidates have been relaxed in two circumstances: Lowell Scott (B.A., English, 1909) and Sinclair Bell Braverman (no degree, 1950), with mixed results.

Second Excerpt

Another note had been scratched into the margin here, this one clearly in Darlington’s jagged, EKG-like scrawl: Alex Stern. She thought of the blood soaking the carpet of the old Anderson mansion black. She thought of the dean—the startled white of his femur jutting from his thigh, the stink of wild dogs filling the air.

Alex set aside the aluminum container of cold falafel from Mamoun’s, wiped her hands on her Lethe House sweats. She limped to the bathroom, popped open the bottle of zolpidem, and tucked one beneath her tongue. She cupped her hand beneath the faucet, watched the water pour over her fingers, listened to the grim sucking sound from the mouth of the drain. Standards for candidates have been relaxed in two circumstances.