Fantasy, Mystery/Thriller, New Adult, Paranormal

My Review: Ninth House (Alex Stern #1): by Leigh Bardugo

Publish Date: October 8th, 2019
Number of Pages: 458 Pages
Publisher: Flatiron Books
Genre(s): New Adult, Paranormal, Thriller, Fantasy

Total Star Rating: 2.5 Stars

For many college students, it’s an incredibly influential time of their lives–I sure as hell know mine was! It’s a time of growth and transformation in many different forms; to trying to cram in study sessions between finals and frat parties, to being away from the parents and making stupid decisions, to signing away parts of your soul on rental agreements and budgeting time and money, to actually putting in an effort at school (for some of us), to allowing ourselves to be more open, exploratory and independent with no shortage of indulging in our urges (in more ways than one).

This adult-level novel from the author of amazing YA series, like Six of Crows and The Shadow and Bone Trilogy, takes her writing to the another level: she gives a detailed and distinguished look at the college lifestyle: the sex, the drugs, how we count sweats and yoga pants as actual clothing, the anxiety and depression, and the violence. Luckily, that last one isn’t as often of a thing as the others, but that doesn’t mean theres a shortage of violence. During my time at school, there were deaths by terrible causes: drug overdose, car accidents, alcohol related, sexual assault, and even a foreign student beaten to death. These sort of themes are what some readers have used to decide that this book is more suited for older readers.

One thing I seem to be growing towards now a days are the urban fantasy works that take the actual world we live in, and kind of throw the rug from underneath us to reveal mythology, magic and lore that has been hidden. In this title, it’s involvement is how the author took the actual secret societies on the Yale campus, and gives them a bigger edge than just being exclusive clubs for the future rich, successful and/or famous future of America. Nope, she makes them secretly able to summon magical, otherworldly powers with potions, rituals, small sacrifices, but also social influence. The one more original part of the story is that a ninth house (Ayyyy, that’s the title!) was formed to watch over the other houses and referee them into staying in order and not exploring too unknown of territory and causing major danger to them and everyone else.

The social commentary that goes along with this books with it’s many dark themes and subject matter make this an actually quite compelling read. In an ivy league school like Yale, class and privilege are VERY present, and the author did not bite her tongue on showing the ease that high class white males on a college campus have an advantage on. It’s something that I’m sure everyone can relate to on some level, because it doesn’t just stop at douchey frat bros. Luckily, the author does not hold back on calling out the various social injustices that still occur on plenty of campuses throughout the country. It’s always a great component of a book when it shows us content that we can relate to as it happens in our actual lives; it makes the book that much more realistic.

Another major theme about this book is like a tribute to anyone who’s survived abuse. It’s dark in terms of subject matter, and I go into it more later on in my review, but the main character has gone through some really heavy shit, like, more shit than anyone should ever have to go through. I swear, the death scenes she’s witnessed would make Tarantino blush. Part of the story is how she wants to heal physically but also mentally and emotionally from her various past traumas. She has her own triggers that she of course has to face head on in order to grow within the story.

What It’s About:

People didn’t need magic to be terrible to each other.”

– Leigh Bardugo, “Ninth House”

This is a story about a girl named Galaxy “Alex” Stern, and how she’d been raised by a hippie mom over in Los Angeles, but now is across the country studying at Yale University. She’s a survivor: she’s experienced all sorts of trauma in her past and after a particularly horrible event, winds up in a hospital bed, and it’s there she meets Dean Sandow and gets accepted into Yale.

The book switched back and forth between Late Spring (present time) and the middle of Winter (the past), with multiple mysteries occurring at once. In Winter, she’s just coming onto the Yale campus and being put her the tutelage of upperclassmen Daniel Arlington, or “Darlington,” while she learns the ropes of being a part of a secret society named Lethe House that watches over the other secret societies of Yale whenever they deal with the occult, the paranormal, etc. They act like a police force, and must attend every secret meeting in order to make sure nothing goes wrong, they stay in line, no one gets hurt or worse…expelled!

Sorry, had to do it!

But their extracurriculars are not supposed to be discovered by anyone, but cut to the present time, and the campus gets rocked by a gruesome murder. Alex arrives on the scene of the crime, and despite doubt from others, she believes one of the secret societies may be behind this crime. She does just about everything in order to try and solve the crime; she even makes a deal with a spirit that only she can see.

There were always excuses for why girls died.

– Leigh bardugo, “Ninth House”

What I Liked:

  1. Exploring the Occult in a New Adult Level Setting! So, I actually consider this title to be more of a “New Adult” reading level than just regular adult, mainly because the main characters are within the age 18-24 range. It’s also not what I normally go for: a paranormal thriller with aspects like the occult, secret Yale societies like Skull and Bones, and witchcraft. The premise sounded interesting, what can I say? I feel like witchcraft in general is making a resurgence as of late in literature, and I only hope it continues to get bigger and bigger! It has major potential for even more original stories to be created!
  2. Daniel Arlington! Easily my favorite character in the whole book so far! Leigh Bardugo is so great at creating those gritty, brooding, aloof male characters that are tall, dark and handsome. Put him right up there with her other characters like Kaz Brekker (from Six of Crows for those that don’t know) and the Darkling (The Shadow and Bone Trilogy). I found him incredibly compelling and interesting to read, but without giving too much away, his presence in the book was also unique. Call me Sharpay Evans via High School Musical 2, but I. WANT. MORE! *snaps fingers*
  3. The Dark & Gritty Subject Matter! Leigh Bardugo admitted at some point that she wanted this book to “fuck us up a little,” and I felt that, I really did! It was refreshing to honestly read something with subject matter that wasn’t afraid to go there, you know? A lot of it is definitely trigger warning material and dark themes that sensitive readers will not like, there’s no doubt about that. BUT, Leigh has informed those who follow her on Twitter about all of it, but here’s a little rundown: it has child abuse, a child that gets raped, drug consumption without consent, PTSD, violence, gore, suicide, drug abuse and overdose, sexual assault, and yeah…someone eats shit. literally…they grab shit out of toilet and eat it. It upsets me that people got offended about this stuff and wanted to try and “cancel” this book, but artists should be able to create from their own experiences as a way of coping, and apparently Leigh has had similar situations in her past (not the eating shit part!). If there’s trigger warnings, pay attention to it if it would upset you and don’t try to ruin it for other people, thanks for coming to my TED talk.
  4. All The Secret Societies Have Secret Powers! I thought it was fun how all the secret societies of Yale (even though they really aren’t all that secret if EVERYONE knows about them) have specific powers that have been around ever since they started up in New Haven. It’s also enjoyable how the author made it seem like it’s been a giant cover-up in American History and they’d actually had a huge influence of the development of the town of New Haven, and Yale itself.

What I Didn’t Like:

  1. More Minor Characters Needed Attention… It felt like the only characters who received any sort of attention from the author was Alex Stern and Darlington. They’re good main characters, but there was plenty of minor characters who would’ve been good to add a few more perspectives to the story. I guess I’m kind of comparing this to her Six of Crows books, where we get 6 points of views. It’s not like we need that many for this title, but there are still plenty of more substantial characters in all her books up until now.
  2. Slower Paced Than Expected…This book wasn’t as exciting as I thought it’d be…THERE, I said it! It felt cold, aloof and kind of boring compared to her other titles. I got to about 60% percent into the book before it really started to pick up again, which is way too long of a wait for any sort of novel I’m reading. It just felt like not all that much actually happens while its almost 500 pages long. I think part of it is because the author spent WAY too much time explaining everything that pertained to the occult and witchcraft and maybe relied WAY too much on backstory for almost everything. Maybe she shouldve left a little more up in the air, and maybe saved it for the next book so she could space it out a little more. Still, I am trying give it the benefit of the doubt because of how much I adore her other titles.

Conclusion:

So, to be completely honest, but I found myself quite disappointed with this book. It was one of my most anticipated books of 2019 along with Queen of Nothing by Holly Black, and maybe I hyped it up myself a little too much and put it on some sort of subconscious pedestal because of how much I adored her Six of Crows books.

I wouldn’t say I hated it, but I’ve definitely loved other titles a lot more. I’m kind of in the middle about it. It has a seriously cool sounding premise, the setting at Yale with the emphasis on the secret societies and the occult; I am intrigued enough to want to check out the next title when it releases a year or so from this one’s publication date, but I seriously hope the next installment adds a lot more excitement overall.

I still remain a huge fan of Leigh Bardugo, and her writing is just absolutely magnificent, but I’m just gonna say this isn’t her best work. It’s fine, it’s normal…not every book an author writes that gets published is going to be mind-blowingly amazing! I’ve also just been in an emotional slump lately, and that could also be a part of it, I don’t know…

On a parting note, just make sure you’re in the right mindset whenever you decide to pick this one up! It is incredibly dark on certain themes and plot components, so sensitive readers that get easily triggered may want to keep this one on the shelf for a little bit before picking it up.

Thanks for Reading!

— Nick Goodsell

YA Fantasy

My Review: The Cruel Prince (The Folk of the Air #1): by Holly Black

Publish Date: January 2nd, 2018
Number of Pages: 370 Pages
Publisher: Brown Books for Young Readers
Genre(s): YA Fantasy

Total Star Rating: 4.25 Stars

I had incredibly little expectations for this title when I picked it up only a couple of months after it’s initial release date. The cover instantly drew me in; I’ve said it before, but YA books have been getting the golden treatment in terms of cover designs. Prior to it, I’d heard very little about Holly Black as an author, and any of the previous work she’s released before this title. She’d done other stories like the Modern Faerie Tales trilogy, The Magisterium series with Cassandra Clare (Bestselling author of the Mortal Instruments Series who’s also her BFF), but none had gotten my attention quite like The Cruel Prince.

I think it was also the many comparisons to Sarah J. Maas’s “A Court of Thorns and Roses” series all over social media that made me even take note of it to be completely honest. At the time, I’d just begun to read that series, fall in love with it after reading the second title, A Court of Mist and Fury (SJM’s best book written to this time, don’t even try and fight me on it!), so I thought to myself, why not?, and gave it a shot.

What It’s About:

At the young age of seven, Jude Duarte witnessed her parents get murdered. She and her two sisters, Taryn and Vivienne, lived peacefully in our world until one day when a magical being arrives and completely changes their lives. General Madoc, who it turned out was actually Vivienne’s biological father, kills their parents and frisks them all away to live with him in the secret, magical realm of Faerie. 10 years later, twin sisters Jude and Taryn have grown to love their new home despite being mortal, and obediently follow the rules in order to stay. Vivi, who is actually half-fae, is the total opposite and doesn’t want to a part of this world.

Elfhame, the setting of Holly Black’s “The Folk of the Air” Series, Image courtesy of the fandom’s wiki page

Being Mortal, the twins are seen as lower-born, or less desirable amongst some of the fae, and the only way they (or any human) can stay in the realm into adulthood is if they marry someone fae, or be able to show a truly impressive skill. Taryn chooses the marriage option, but Jude decides to enter a tournament to show off her skill in combat in order to become a become a knight for the royal family.

I want to win. I do not yearn to be their equal. In my heart, I yearn to best them.”

– Holly Black, “The Cruel Prince”

The three sisters attend a ball at the Palace for the King, who has announced that he will soon appoint a successor amongst his six sons for the crown. It is there that you meet another VERY interesting character, Prince Cardan Greenbriar, the youngest but most vicious of the royals. Along with his little posse of noble-born fae, their goal seems to be to torment the twins during their schooling lessons. Jude and Cardan go back and forth in their torture; he even tries to drown her in order to get her to not compete in the tournament, but is saved by her sister. Jude and Cardan’s hatred for each other is a strong driving point of the story, that also takes a twist that no one would wholly see coming.

One night, Jude returns home to be told that theres a prince waiting for her in the parlor. It’s not Prince Cardan, but one of his older brothers, Prince Dain, much to her surprise. They cut a deal, and from there on, Jude becomes a part of all the palace intrigue and learns more about the lies and deception that go on behind closed doors, and discovers a shocking secret, along with a plot, that could change everything. She must be able to stand amongst those most dangerous in order to not only save herself, or her sisters, but all of Faerie itself.

Instead of being afraid, I will become something to fear.”

– Holly Black, “The Cruel Prince”

What I Liked:

  1. The Complexity of the Characters! In this story, there’s no line of good versus evil; it’s not black and white and easy to distinguish. Every character is not entirely likeable or unlikeable, and they all have a dark side and does things that are below the belt, despicable, whatever nasty word you can use to describe it. It was refreshing to see a heroine in Jude, who wasn’t afraid to lie, cheat and steal in order to gain an advantage; even better was when she found herself enjoying it. This world doesn’t create Disney Princesses darling; you’ve got to have some claws in order to gain power and influence.
  2. Fae Mythology! I am by no means an expert when it comes to Faerie folklore, but according to others, Holly Black really did her research on the matter and successfully integrated a lot of myth and legends into her story in order for it be considered an accurate portrayal. The Fae are supernatural beings that can come in all shapes and sizes and is the broad term to tie together many species: Elves, Pixies, Leprechauns, Dwarves, Gnomes, Dryads, etc. Basically, imagine every fairytale you’ve ever read from your childhood to now, and any magical being that appears is considered fae. They’ve been around for such a long time (Even Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream had them), and lived in harmony amongst mortals until Christianity drove a wedge between them (first of all, hmmm……second of all, thats what I think I read…experts can feel free to call me out if that’s inaccurate). They are more in tune with nature, they cannot tell a lie, they are more malevolent than humans, are tricksters, and for some reason have a weakness to iron.
  3. The Climax! Yowza…what a way to wrap it all together, not to mention, what a creative way to integrate this story into the next. Holly Black knows how to torture her readers!
  4. Holly Black’s Prose! Her writing style is simply gorgeous; it seams effortlessly together, and the way she can form words…it all just comes together so magnificently. It’s just perfect. I want to know her secrets.
  5. The Tiny sprinkle of Romance! Yes fam, amongst all the lies, the deceit, the bitter betrayals, the side-changing, there is a little bit of romance alongside all the rest of the story, much to my satisfaction. The only question is: Is it genuine, or is it simply manipulated in order to gain an edge? And by edge, yes, I mean the edge of a sharp knife against a delicate throat, ready to test a theory (*wink*wink*) to those that read have already it), or ready to slash at any second, sending blood spraying like a popped open bottle of champagne.

What I Didn’t Like:

  1. The Beginning Felt Rushed and Undervalued…To me, the beginning of the story went by so fast with its initial set up, it almost feels like it was pointless to include it if it meant so little to the overall story. It’s something that’s supposed to be an incredibly traumatic & grieving experience, something that changes a being (magical or mortal), and it felt like it was over before we knew it without any of the characters actually being all that affected by it. Even more strange, there was absolutely no need for revenge or justice amongst them because of it; it simply happened, and everyone moved on (except for me, I guess…)

Conclusion:

This book overall is nothing thats too new or innovative when it comes to what we’ve seen in YA Fantasy before, but that doesn’t make it any less of an entertaining read. It’s addicting because of the author’s beautiful prose, her characterization and their development, and the many twists and turns you take within the pages as the reader; it’s like being caught in a web of vines deep in the forest, and no one is around to hear you scream. It leaves you with excitement, it leaves you in torment, but ultimately it leaves you wanting more, which is what any author should want.

There are some similarities to the popular “A Court of Thorns and Roses” series by my queen Sarah J. Maas that I mentioned earlier, but that’s purely from looking at it from it’s initial aesthetic before actually reading what Holly Black has created for us. Both are great additions to the YA Fantasy genre, and it can go down as me saying that it’s guaranteed that this series will go down as one of the Greats.

Thanks for Reading!

— Nick Goodsell