This book has some known trigger warnings. However, if you're going to dabble in the dark academia subgenre, you're probably aware of the darker tones these stories bring. Still, for those dealing with personal traumas that they may not want to subject themselves to while reading this book, a quick warning that Ninth House does deal with violence, rape, sexual assault, murder, and drug use.
I have seen some reviews list every plot beat that's grotesque as a trigger warning, but I think that's a bit overkill and can be more damaging to someone who sincerely cannot engage with the details. So, if you think any of these bucketed categories aren't in favor of your mental health, please consider that (also this may not be the subgenre for you). Still, if you're squeamish and you've watched anything like Game of Thrones, this is manageable.
Now that that's out of the way...
Ninth House opens with a prologue in spring. We meet Alex Stern, a student at Yale who is a member of the Lethe House and works with the secret societies of the university, however, much of the story focuses on the Skull and Bones society. The Bonesmen host highly mystical prognostications, focused on economics and politics—everything you'd expect from Yale students linked to a secret society that functions on money and nepotism. However, Alex isn't quite like the rest of Yale or the Bonesmen. She's a high school dropout, with a rough past, who was accepted to Yale on a scholarship because she has a special gift: she can see the "Grays". The ghosts that haunt New Haven.
The setting is painted so vastly different between perspectives. For some, it's the failure of the elite—the city that can never compete with its ivy siblings. Some see it for the alive beast it is—filled with haunted memories, festering wounds where the money ran out. But this New Haven reflects the state of every college town: A castle gleaming in the center of mediocrity and underdeveloped life.
Bardugo does exactly what you want dark academia to do. It's not just an aesthetically pleasing setting, but it's a satirical commentary on the prestige of a university like Yale and those involved with secret societies. Ninth House executes on this satire well by making the primary point-of-view Alex's—a person who never thought she'd be in a place like Yale. She has earned the right to poke fun at the classism and the overall pretentious nature of the budding scholars around her. It makes the commentary feel organic, rather than having some well-off pseudo-intellectual nihilist sneering at their peers.
Darlington's perspective reveals a self-aware young man with elevated dictation and charisma. He understands the follies of his world while also delighting in them. I personally love a little self-aware pretentiousness. When he first encounters Alex, and her disdain for the behavior of the people around her, Darlington feels pangs of resentment and defensiveness. But he's aware that his world comes with privileges and mediocre understandings of what life outside of this mystical New Haven is really like. Especially for someone like him, who delights in sticking to Black Elm for as long as possible.
The descriptions are what gripped me the most. The way words like "sweaty" or "matted" depicted the grotesque nature of Alex's surroundings and states of being. Bardugo has a poignant way of creating an image in your mind with only a handful of words. Something I worry I'm often struggling to do. From the morning dew sticking to grass, to the way an open wound festers, Ninth House burns these illustrations into your mind. It's also why if this ever became a show or movie, my squeamishness might get the better of me. (I covered my eyes a lot in GoT, okay?)
I've seen some reviews state that they didn't like how reserved and lackluster Alex was by comparison of other characters. I don't agree with the idea that she was stale in any way. Forgetting the amount of cunning and action she took throughout the book, Bardugo does a great job of emphasizing the mystery behind her motives while giving you very exact reasons for why she is more withholding and stoic at times. We see this when one chapter pivots to Darlington's perspective. Through his eyes, Alex shifts between rigid and lively depending on the conversation and her environment, and the dread that follows her stare keeps him on edge. Throughout Ninth House, some of those layers peel back just enough to understand why she is the way she is. She's worn and ragged by time and abuse. She's having to use her survivalist skills to adapt quickly in a world she didn't earn through achievement or money. Yale has trapped her in this life of potential and academics while using her much as she had been used many times over.
While I want to rave about how much I loved Darlington, and even give more mention to the reasons why Alex is a great protagonist, I have to give a special shoutout to Dawes. Dawes appears, more or less, as an underdog in the story. She's seen furiously scribbling notes, highlighter markings coloring her knuckles, trying desperately to get her grad school thesis perfect. In the beginning, we know little of her. She's in love with Darlington, she's dismissive of Alex, and she's otherwise seen one-dimensionally. But Bardugo didn't allow Dawes to stay that way. She's cunning and caring, and while she's more timid than Alex, her expertise navigating this world and performing various rituals make her an important actor in this plot. Dawes could have easily stayed a one-dimensional character—grimacing at Alex once in a while, maybe occasionally knowing where to find a book that was missing—but she became much more than that. Allowing her character to be a player and not a passive observer in this story made me so very happy.
I'm doing my best to avoid spoilers, so this is all you're getting from me. But anyway, it's a tremendous mystery paranormal plot. I had a lot of fun.