The 2019 adult fantasy, “Ninth House,” by Leigh Bardugo, faced a large amount of pre-publication controversy after Advanced Reader Copies/ARCs of the book were passed out at the Young Adult Literary Convention, or YALC, in June, in preparation for the book’s October 8, 2019 publication date. According to an article in “Bustle” (linked below): “Bardugo says that when she asked whether this was appropriate, given that ‘Ninth House’ is not a YA novel, she was told that other adult titles were also being made available at the festival.” Early readers who acquired the book at that YA convention began tweeting out trigger warnings about the book’s content.
Between June and October 2019, many readers and reviewers have reflected upon whether “Ninth House” is actually a Young Adult or adult novel. I want to answer that question myself. To me, Bardugo’s YA fantasy bestseller “Six of Crows” read as an adult novel with the YA label slapped on for marketing purposes. In all honesty, “Ninth House” reads like an *actual* YA fantasy with an “adult fantasy” label slapped on for marketing purposes. The genre conventions of the book’s ending read entirely like YA fantasy, running heavily on unrealistic silliness, melodrama, ham-fisted moralizing, villain monologues, and, most especially, the “Teens Save the World” trope that is such a standard in the genre. Not all YA fantasy features content like that, but many books in that category do, and Bardugo’s first adult book was no exception.
“Ninth House” is technically told through two alternating points of view: that of Galaxy/Alex Stern (age 20) and Daniel Tabor Arlington/Darlington, age 21 or 22. The narrative voice of the entire book, however, is truly an omniscient narrative voice, the voice of Bardugo herself. I’ll have more to say about that later, but for now, I’ll just point out that while I know that YA is supposed to have teenage protagonists, Alex and Darlington *did* read as teenagers to me. They bumble through the novel making foolish mistakes and acting clueless. Their baffling lack of critical thinking about the magic system they were supposed to be overseeing read as very childish and naïve, like they really were fifteen or sixteen years old.
Overall, I found “Ninth House” to be superbly misogynistic and massively ignorant. I also found Bardugo’s portrayal of what she has labeled an “anti-hero – not an unlikeable female character, but a straight-up anti-hero” (quoted from “Bustle” link above) to fall into heavily racist stereotypes about Latinos and Hispanics in the United States, as well as horrible stereotypes about Hispanic women and Latinas which thrive in pornography. Because multiple rape scenes in the book are described like the reader is watching a modern pornography film, and because the aftermath trauma of one rape is treated by the text as if the victim were a porn star and not a rape victim, the book draws too heavily from modern pornography for me to ignore pornographic portrayals of Hispanic women and Latinas.
If you enjoy modern pornography, ham-fisted YA fantasy, and anti-Mexican racist coding in your fiction, you might enjoy “Ninth House” a lot more than I did. Truly, I recognize that there is a big audience for this book, and Bardugo is widely known as Queen Leigh online because her fans are legion.
But this book was so misogynistic and so racist that it is the last one I’ll ever read from this author. I cannot speak any further about it without spoiling the plot, however. So please stop reading here to avoid spoilers, thanks.
**massive spoilers ahead**
“Ninth House” begins with a four-page Prologue that establishes an elliptical timeline, when a story is told out of sequence, moving back and forth between different moments in time. Elliptical timelines are not usually found in genre/commercial fiction. This storytelling technique most typically signals literary fiction, and it comes with certain expectations that the work being read will adhere to literary standards of prose much more than commercial standards.
As is the norm with elliptical timelines, the Prologue of “Ninth House” briefly summarizes the plot of the novel. But in a clear break with true literary fiction, this Prologue summary is not only extremely vague, but it covers only the first twenty-seven chapters of the plot, or the first 395 pages of this 450-page novel. The major problem with this choice is that *all* of the main action of the book begins *after* Chapter 28, when the storyline finally joins up with the scene introduced in the Prologue.
Bardugo has written a novel that is neither fish nor fowl; this book is not truly a literary elliptical timeline *or* a chronological plotline that runs on whodunit suspense. Instead, “Ninth House” is deliberately coy. Bardugo withholds crucial information that a traditional elliptical timeline would normally provide to the reader, because the plotline of “Ninth House” requires the reader’s enforced confusion to create the pot-boiler suspense of a chronological storyline. In my opinion, this book is an unfortunate mash-up of writing styles, and its execution is extremely bad. I felt sorely abused reading this book. The plot of “Ninth House” runs on the engine of what I call “Baffle the Reader with Bullshit,” as if I cannot separate an author’s deliberate obfuscation from actual literary prose.
Elliptical timelines are not employed by literary authors in order to Baffle the Reader with Bullshit. When this literary device is done well, broadcasting the book’s ending in advance takes all of the emphasis off of “what” happens in a story so that the reader can instead focus on “how” things happen. The ending is purposefully spoiled so that the reader can pay close attention to everything else as they read: the author’s thematic motifs, word choice, sentence structure, imagery, emotional stakes, subtext, and all of the other fine storytelling elements that readers often miss or pay less attention to when they are racing through a book to find out “what happens next” and “how the book ends.”
When Bardugo began “Ninth House” with an elliptical storyline, I understood, as a reader, that I was meant to play close attention to every word on the page. Literary authors are careful with their words because each word is supposed to build upon the next. Readers are largely expected to remember every minute detail in order to enjoy the story.
But “Ninth House” is NOT literary fiction. It is a clumsy, sloppy genre novel that actively punishes a close reading, because close reading exposes plot holes, mistakes, and long, lazy chunks of repetition that are not at all about literary technique, but exposing the author’s failures.
Because the first 88 percent of this novel is backstory, or narrated in flash-backs that do not join the thru-story of the Prologue until page 396, other reviewers have commented about how “confusing” the first 200 pages are, or how much the story “drags” until the action picks up at the end. For readers who weren’t put off by that, the story quickly establishes that Alex is similar to the little boy named Cole Sear in the 1999 supernatural-horror-drama film, “The Sixth Sense”: Alex sees dead people. They walk around among the living. In the world of “Ninth House,” seeing the ghosts of the dead is a rare ability that very few people have, but the people at Yale University *do* know about it. In fact, the people at Yale know so much about ghosts that they have their own word for them: Grays.
Grays are also tied up in the magic around New Haven, Connecticut. The novel never defines what kind of magic is used in the story or where it comes from, but Darlington tells the reader on page 278: “There were places in this world that magic avoided, like the bleak lunar planes of the National Mall in Washington, D.C., and places it was drawn to, like Rockefeller Center in Manhattan and the French Quarter in New Orleans. New Haven had an extremely high concentration of sites where magic seemed to catch and build, like cotton candy on a spool.” These magical “nexuses” are what have given the people at Yale enormous power, and hence why they know so much about Grays.
The people who run Yale (trustees, deans, powerful professors, and all the top graduates) are truly evil, however; not only do these Yalies eviscerate homeless people and people who are mentally ill for their magical rituals, but they have kept the truth about ghosts a complete secret from the rest of the world.
Alex has suffered her whole life from an affliction that no one around her understands. Even though there might be Yale-trained child psychologists in the U.S. who could have helped children like Alex, all Yale graduates in this book are truly shitty people who keep the existence of Grays a secret, and leave these kids to fend for themselves.
Until Alex is twenty years old, no one believes that her “hallucinations” are actually the ghosts of the dead. Not only that, but Alex is raped by an adult male ghost at age twelve. This rape is described in detail (pages 122-123), and it is one of the trigger warnings people tweeted about in their ARC reviews.
Within the book community, “Ninth House” began an interesting conversation about how “the need for trigger warnings” is largely a gendered issue, impacting the work of female authors much more than that of male authors. When male authors use “the spectacle of rape” in a book, most readers never complain. But when female authors use “the spectacle of rape,” there is often an outcry and a proclaimed need for content warnings.
I agree that content warnings do seem largely gendered. Bardugo uses the spectacle of rape many times in “Ninth House.” A male author would not be “called out” on this issue as much as Bardugo has been. I agree with those who have stated that if content warnings start appearing in books, it should be an industry-wide standard for all books, and not something that is used to negatively impact the sales of female authors.
Some readers have stated that the rape scenes in “Ninth House” are not written “as spectacle,” but with “appropriate sensitivity for rape victims.” I emphatically disagree. Bardugo is no more “respectful” of rape than most genre books are, which is to say, Bardugo is not at all respectful of rape victims in “Ninth House.” This is because her narrative voice does not stay rooted within the point of view of the rape victim, but employs the male gaze to describe all of the rapes in the book. Like watching a pornographic film, the raped bodies of the women are viewed by the reader as objects, as spectacle, and within a misogynistic culture, the objectification of women is inherently titillating. In “Ninth House,” the reader is always placed *outside* of the rape victim’s body, occupying a point of view that is identical to the camera lens filming a woman’s body in pornography.
I’ll begin with the first rape in the book, the one that caused the most controversy. At age twelve, Alex begins menstruating during a school field trip. She goes into a public restroom and uses the toilet. She bunches a wad of toilet paper into her underwear. Afterward, she washes her hands at the sink. A ghost walks up behind Alex and tries to rip off her shorts. “Alex screamed, she kicked out, struck solid flesh and bone, felt the grip on her shorts loosen. She tried to shove back from the sink, glimpsed her face in the mirror, a blue barrette sliding from her hair, saw the man—the thing—that had hold of her.” (pg 122)
The moment when Bardugo focuses on Alex’s face and her dislodged barrette is one of the first signals that the scene is written as kiddie porn. No twelve-year-old girl being attacked in a bathroom is going to be looking at herself in a mirror; she is going to be fixated on the monster coming after her, and trying to get away.
As the scene continues, Alex struggles to comprehend that a ghost is touching her for the first time. “Then she was facedown on the concrete floor. She felt her hips jerked backward, her panties yanked down, something nudging against her, pushing into her. […] She screamed and screamed.” (pg 122-123)
While those sentences are firmly rooted within Alex’s point of view, the very next paragraph states: “That was how Meagan and Ms. Rosales found her, on the bathroom floor, shorts crumpled around her ankles, panties at her knees, blood smeared over her thighs and a lump of blood-soaked toilet paper wadded between her legs, as she sobbed and thrashed, hips humped up and shuddering. Alone.” (pg 123)
In that paragraph, the narrative point of view shifts completely away from Alex, and the reader is seeing what Meagan and Ms. Rosales see, looking at Alex from the point of view of a camera lens in a pornography film. Alex certainly cannot see what these two people see. She is currently “facedown” on the floor. But the scene is still described pornographically, from the perspective of a camera lens that objectifies Alex’s body. This is the definition of writing from the male gaze. When rape is written into a novel this way, it is being used as spectacle. This prose is not “showing solidarity” with rape victims. It is merely objectifying a rape victim’s body the same way pornography does. This prose is deeply misogynistic and actively promotes rape culture by mimicking pornography.
Does Bardugo have the right to depict rape through the male gaze in her novel? Absolutely. Male authors use the male gaze all the time. Sexism is extremely profitable in art. Misogyny is extremely profitable in art. Objectifying women and promoting rape culture makes a lot of money for artists, both in film and in novels like this one. It would be unfair if readers supported men making money off of misogyny, but not women authors like Bardugo.
Graphic rape scenes like this one are also a common trope within the horror genre. Horror novels (books sold strictly *as* horror) are largely written by men for a male audience. The same is true of horror films: they are largely created by men with a male audience in mind. In “Ninth House,” Bardugo is mimicking a number of genre conventions of horror that are extremely popular. Writing so many horror elements into her adult fantasy novel was most likely a conscious choice to expand her fan base to include more male readers. The market demographic for horror novels is a largely male market base, and the fact that the genre features such a heavy reliance on pornographic rape scenes is a big part of its appeal.
It is *certainly* possible for novelists to write about rape and *not* use the male gaze. Not all novels that describe rape are describing it pornographically. But all of Bardugo’s rape scenes are pornographic, especially the long description of Alex’s college friend Mercy’s rape (pg 249-250) and the multiple rapes described in a male character’s “Pussy Vault” on his phone (pg 260). All of these rapes are literally watched on video, and all are described exactly like watching modern pornography. In every case, these adult female rape victims are under the influence of a magical mind-controlling drug called Merity, and they are eagerly following the commands of their rapists. In this way, they are identical to watching porn stars, women who must eagerly follow the commands of the director in order to be paid for making the film.
Mercy also displays no lasting trauma from being raped by at least two men—and probably more, since one of her rapists states that “all the brothers” thought she was “hot last night” when he sends her a video of the assault (pg 249). After spending some time crying in her dorm room the day after her gang-rape, Mercy goes to the crowded college cafeteria for dinner with Alex and Lauren. Everyone in the cafeteria suddenly starts watching a video starring one of Mercy’s rapists, a boy named Blake, eating a mouthful of human feces out of a toilet (pg 264-265). After viewing the video, Mercy is suddenly trauma-free. Instead of feeling tired, angry, paranoid, sick, or traumatized, her appetite returns, and she takes “a big bite of her remaining cheeseburger.” Then she happily expresses to her friends that all is well with her because two wrongs have now made a right (pg 266).
In other words, now that Alex has used a magical drug to force Blake to eat human feces, Mercy is no longer traumatized by her rape. Two days later, Mercy appears in a scene with Alex and Lauren to further emphasize that everything is completely back to normal. The three friends are chatting in their dorm room about makeup, clothing, jewelry, dating, and making plans to attend a big party on Friday night (pg 362). Mercy states that she wants to go to the party, and that she wants to borrow Alex’s lipstick. Then Alex gets ready to go on a date, and Lauren calls her a “beautiful slut” before she leaves (pg 362).
None of this is a realistic portrayal of the aftermath of a rape, especially not a rape with multiple rapists who filmed their assault and immediately sent their victim the video. Bardugo treats Mercy’s rape as if all that happened to Mercy was that she broke her toe and cried a bit the next day, then received some healing magic and everything turned out fine. There is no fear of unwanted pregnancy, STDs, physical bodily harm, or any of the emotional or psychological trauma that rape victims suffer.
This depiction of the aftermath of a gang rape in *no way* holds up with reality. It is another glaring instance in which rape is used only as spectacle in the book. In the case of Mercy’s rape, it is also used as a plot device. Because Blake and his male friends rape Mercy, Alex discovers that Blake is using the magical mind-controlling drug Merity on his victims, a drug that is manufactured by the secret societies of Yale. More importantly, Alex learns that Merity, the ultimate date-rape drug, was being created and sold to Blake by the murder victim whose death Alex is investigating for most of the book. The murder-mystery plot of the book takes a big leap forward due to Mercy’s rape, a rape that has no other consequence than to give Alex more information to solve a murder case.
The female murder victim’s body, a young woman named Tara Hutchins, is also described in a sexualized way: “There was stubble near her bikini area, red razor bumps like a rash” (pg 137). Bardugo never objectifies or sexualizes her male characters in this way, whether they are living or dead. Only Bardugo’s female characters have their pubic hair, bikini regions, nipples, and naked bodies described on the page. All of Bardugo’s narrative choices reify the male gaze, in which women’s bodies are treated as sexualized objects that forward the plot.
Many reviewers expressed outrage that “Ninth House” included a scene in which a young man is forced to eat human feces. In modern pornography, women are frequently filmed ingesting feces during sex. An increasingly popular—and increasingly ubiquitous—sexual act filmed in porn is known as the “ATM,” which stands for anus-to-mouth, when a man removes his erection from a woman’s anus and puts it directly into a woman’s mouth. Many films explicitly focus on women sucking fecal matter off of men’s erections. I am certain that Bardugo had this in mind when she showcased her main character “turning the tables” on Blake, and forcing him to eat feces out of a toilet.
Of course, the biggest difference between this scene and pornography is that Blake, a habitual and brutally sadistic rapist, is fully clothed the entire time, and he wasn’t being filmed having sex while he ate feces. The humiliation factor is much higher for a female porn star than it is for Blake in that scene, but after reading so many degrading rape-as-pornography scenes, I still found it quite humorous that Alex forced a man to do something that Mercy was probably forced to do when she was raped by Blake and his friends. Rather than feeling shocked by this scene, I actually laughed. It was the only place in the novel where a male character suffered anything remotely similar to what the female characters in this book suffer.
One of the videotaped rapes Alex watches is described like a popular genre of pornography known as Latina Facial Abuse. Many academics have studied the ways in which modern pornography is explicitly racist, and Latina Facial Abuse is the genre almost all young women of color participate in (either willingly or unwillingly) when they are in porn. These films typically star a young woman of color who is on her knees with a man standing in front of her. While the woman performs oral sex, the man chokes, slaps, punches, and hits her, all while calling her racist and misogynistic slurs, and thrusting his erection down her throat to make her gag until she throws up. The woman is ordered to throw up either on the floor or into a dog dish, and then she must eat her own vomit, sometimes while other men penetrate her vaginally and/or anally. Latina Facial Abuse is an incredibly profitable and wildly popular genre of porn.
Similarly, in “Ninth House,” Alex watches videos in which Blake rapes women who are lying in pools of their own vomit. On page 260, while Alex is watching videos on Blake’s phone: “One girl was so far gone only the whites of her eyes were visible, appearing and disappearing like slivers of moon as Blake fucked her, another with vomit in her hair, her face pressed into a pool of sick as Blake took her from behind.”
Facial Abuse films can star women of any race, ethnic background, and skin color, but Latina Facial Abuse is one of the most popular forms of Facial Abuse films, and women of color are typically forced to perform in Latina Facial Abuse instead of performing in other, less humiliating or disgusting types of pornography.
Relatedly, a little later in “Ninth House,” Alex’s high school boyfriend tells a fifteen-year-old Alex to perform oral sex on a man who is “straight out of film school” (pg 289). Alex performs oral sex on this stranger while the man sits on a toilet. The scene implies that the man treats Alex like a porn star by coming on her face; after the man comes, Alex “rinsed out her mouth and cleaned up her eye makeup.” In modern pornography, scenes of men ruining women’s eye makeup with their come are wildly popular, and “Ninth House” strongly mimics the spectacle of modern porn in all ways.
The text repeatedly states that Alex has a white mother and “brown” father who (according to the text) was most likely “Mexican,” but Alex is never sure where, exactly, he was from. She repeatedly questions if her ability to see ghosts, as well as her despicable behavior as a drug addict, thief, high school dropout, whore, and mass murderer (someone who kills four or more people in a single killing event) was inherited in her blood from her brown-skinned/possibly Mexican father. Alex’s trusted grandmother says of this mysterious brown-skinned man, “He was a bad wind that blew through” (pg 404).
Alex’s physical descriptions are repeated throughout the book: she has pale olive skin, black hair and dark eyes, and falls under the category of “exotic” the text uses more than once to describe women of color. In seventh grade, Alex struggled to fit in due to her pale-skinned “Mexican” looks: “The white kids still thought she was Mexican and the Mexican kids still thought she was white” (pg 120). Right before Alex’s killing spree at age 18 or 19 is described in detail, her best friend Hellie tells Alex, “If you stay in the sun much longer, you’re gonna look all Mexicana” (pg 292). Five pages later, when Alex kills her first victim with a baseball bat, the event is described with a description that emphasizes her assumed Mexican heritage: “She hit him again and his head gave way with a thick crunch, like a piñata breaking open, chips of skull and brain flying, blood spattering everywhere” (pg 297).
Depicting Mexican people as depraved criminals is a long-standing stereotype in the United States. By the time I reached page 297 of “Ninth House,” in which Alex smashes open a man’s skull “like a piñata,” and goes on to beat to death a group of boys who are asleep in their beds, I kept hearing current U.S. President Donald Trump in my head, specifically, his infamous lines from his presidential announcement speech on June 16, 2015 —
“When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”
If you agree with those statements (and many people do), then “Ninth House” will affirm and reward those beliefs. Alex is a drug addict, a drug dealer, a prostitute, a mass murderer, and she takes a place on the admissions roster at Yale University solely due to her ability to see ghosts, and not because she cares about school or learning at all. She is also given a full ride to Yale, a position that a hard-working, straight-A student from an underprivileged background might have benefited from, but it was given to Alex instead. Alex is the only full-ride scholarship student mentioned in the book. She is also the only student in the book who is from an economically disadvantaged background.
I never expected that “Ninth House” would feature such stereotypical anti-Mexican and brutally classist representation. I grew up in poverty myself, and received a full-ride scholarship to a prestigious university due to my grades and work ethic. My personal history made it even more painful for me to encounter Bardugo’s racist, classist depiction of an economically disadvantaged Latina/Hispanic young woman in “Ninth House.”
If you follow news media sources that have debunked the claims President Trump made in his speech, journalists who have researched the facts, and consistently reported that crime statistics and immigrant data do not support President Trump’s words whatsoever, and if you have any sympathies for people who grow up in economically disadvantaged homes and receive college scholarships, or are such a person yourself, then “Ninth House” might be a highly upsetting novel to read. I would certainly never recommend this book to any of my Latinx friends, my friends who are fellow rape victims, or anyone who has grown up in poverty and worked their way through college.
Alex herself uses vile misogynistic and classist slurs in her dialogue. Throughout the book, Alex expresses loathing and contempt for herself as well as other people, especially other women. While she is at Yale, Alex calls herself “shit” while she is talking to a police officer: “I may be shit, but I’m the kind that sticks” (pg 146). Her statement is meant to be a triumphant moment of self-awareness and badassery, and is the closing line of Chapter 8.
Alex uses misogynistic slurs to earn more badassery points while talking to a white Yale student named Tripp. Alex needs to ask him questions about a murder victim, and begins by asking him, “Gonna be a good little slut for me and put out?” (pg 236). When Tripp’s male friends jokingly tell Alex to: “Bring him home early,” Alex responds with: “Why? You want seconds?” (pg 237). Alex threatens to “knock the front teeth in” of a student named Salome, and Alex says that if she does, Salome will then look like “a brother-fucking hillbilly” (pg 206).
Alex does not use racist slurs or anti-Semitic slurs. When her high school boyfriend, Len, calls someone “an oily Jewish prick,” Alex responds with displeasure: “Alex would squirm, thinking of her grandmother lighting the prayer candles on Shabbat” (pg 286). Alex is not comfortable using Jewish slurs and racist slurs, because PC culture prohibits their usage. But slurs against women, poor people, and Mexicans are fair game in this book.
Having read Bardugo’s bestselling YA novel, “Six of Crows,” I kept thinking of Alex as the modern-day Latina version of Kaz Brekker (who is also 19 or 20 years old), and the setting of New Haven as a modern-day Ketterdam (Bardugo’s version of historical Amsterdam), a place of total corruption and moral depravity. Kaz Brekker, however, would NEVER refer to himself as “shit,” nor would he swagger around using misogynistic slurs the way Alex does. Bardugo allows Alex to speak this way because Alex, as a woman, is of a much lower social status than Kaz. And as a woman of color, she is definitely lower in social status than he is.
What makes Alex’s use of misogynistic and classist slurs egregiously disgusting is the fact that Alex claims to have solidarity with women at the end of the book. Specifically, as Alex says: “‘Immigrant girls. Brown girls. Poor girls.’ Girls just like me” (pg 435). The climax of the book wants the reader to believe that the protagonist, who is fine throwing out the nastiest slurs against women and poor people, suddenly feels a sense of solidarity with women and poor people. As my brother Lee would say of this plot development: “You have to be a real kind of special to believe some bullshit like that.” Which was exactly how I felt about Alex and her sudden solidarity with poor brown girls in this book.
Many academics, scholars, and feminists have pointed out that the vast majority of Western fairy tales are deeply rooted in misogyny, and focus on female villains as the root of all evil. Specifically, the figures of evil mothers and evil stepmothers are frequently the demonic Other that the heroes of the story must vanquish. The same is true in “Ninth House.” In keeping with the book’s overall hatred of women, the most depraved monster in this book (by far) is a woman named Daisy who died fairly young (around the age of twenty, approximately one hundred years before Alex arrives at Yale). Right after death, Daisy used her ghost body to eat the soul of her still-living maid (a grown woman named Gladys), and then Daisy inhabited her dead maid’s body by pushing her own ghost body into the corpse.
Daisy describes how she did this during one of the two villain monologues that take place near the very end of the book (pg 432). Some readers enjoy denouement plot contrivances and climactic mustache-twirling villain diatribes, but I find such monologues extremely hokey and melodramatic, and that was definitely the case with Daisy’s long monologue at the end of “Ninth House.” When Daisy says of Gladys, “I left my ruined body and claimed hers. She was the first” (pg 432), the description reminded me of reading Laini Taylor’s 2011 YA fantasy, “Daughter of Smoke and Bone,” when the character of Madrigal does the same thing near the very end of the novel.
Daisy herself was very similar to the character of Mother Gothel in Disney’s 2010 animated film, “Tangled,” a retelling of the Rapunzel fairy tale. Daisy, like Mother Gothel, is sadistic, selfish, and keeping herself young and beautiful by magic. Daisy, just like Mother Gothel, is destroyed by removing the magic that has kept her young and beautiful, which turns her into a pile of dust (pg 442). Fans of the movie “Tangled” might enjoy how much the ending of “Ninth House” echoes the Disney film.
Interestingly, I think Bardugo might have been aware that Disney used racial coding in the character of Mother Gothel, racial coding that the YouTube channel “The Princess and the Scrivener” discusses in this excellent vlog: “Tangled Part I: Cultural Appropriation and Racial Coding.” Here is the link to that video –
In contrast to Mother Gothel’s racial coding in “Tangled,” Daisy is a white woman who inhabits another white woman’s body, and Bardugo emphasizes this in her villain monologue, when Daisy states of Gladys: “She was Irish, you know. Very stubborn,” and then Daisy goes on to discuss an Irish taboo against saying the word ‘bear’ (pg 432). Earlier in the book, the reader is told that Gladys’s body possesses “snow white” hair that is “set carefully on her head like a helmet” (pg 79), which is eerily similar to how Ayn Rand describes Dominique’s blonde hair in her 1943 novel, “The Fountainhead.” Daisy’s villain body is a white woman’s body, and many of Daisy’s victims are white women, a fact that is made clear in the climax of the novel, when Alex speaks the names of Daisy’s victims in order to free their souls from Daisy’s magic (pg 439-440).
The entire “Call to the missing/I know their names/speak their names” climax of the book was identical to Kimberlé Crenshaw’s 2016 TED talk, “The Urgency of Intersectionality,” and the Say Her Name movement, except “Ninth House” focuses on white girls, with one black girl added in at the end of the list (pg 440). As someone who loves and supports Crenshaw’s work, and is moved to tears every time I even *think* about Crenshaw’s TED talk, I was astounded that “Ninth House” featured such a “feminist manifesto” ending (pg 435), an ending that obviously drew from Crenshaw’s groundbreaking work identifying and defining intersectionality, as well as the Say Her Name/#SayHerName movement, and then Bardugo didn’t even mention Crenshaw, her TED talk, or credit the Say Her Name movement in the book’s Acknowledgements.
Bardugo takes the time to thank many people in her Acknowledgements, and she cites a number of books about the history of New Haven and Yale that she used in creating “Ninth House.” But Kimberlé Crenshaw’s name is NOWHERE in that list. For a novel that wants its readership to believe that this book is #woke to intersectional feminism, and for a novel that even uses a “Say Her Name” action sequence in the story’s climax, this glaring omission is further proof to me that this book is NOT a feminist novel at all. Like the woman-hating pornography that this book copies aesthetically in all ways, “Ninth House” is a book by and for the patriarchy.
I would also like to point out that the only soul the reader ever actually sees Daisy “eat” in the story belongs to a man named Dean Sandow. During the big Say Her Name climax, Dean Sandow’s ghost does not exit Daisy’s magical body along with the others. What happened to Dean Sandow’s soul? And what happened to all of the other men’s souls that Daisy probably ate to keep herself alive with evil soul-eating magic? The novel doesn’t say. Sandow and any other male victims are completely forgotten and left out of the ending because the book was too busy copying Crenshaw’s TED talk.
“Ninth House” frequently pays lip service to feminism and social justice, but the real content of this book is misogynistic and appropriative. The word “appropriative” appears in the text when Darlington tells the reader that it would be “appropriative” if Alex dressed as a “sexy Pocahontas” for Halloween (pg 165). This is the extent that “Ninth House” is #woke: in surface-level dialogue and glib, snarky commentary. The book’s woke statements are meaningless when a reader considers the actual content of this book. In “Ninth House,” Bardugo’s use of Crenshaw’s work and the Say Her Name movement is appropriative. That level of appropriation is far more egregious and sickening to me than seeing a Latina or Hispanic girl like Alex dress up as a “sexy Pocahontas” for a Halloween party at Yale.
There were so many other things that I found to be aggravating, ignorant, and wrong about this book. But this review is already so long that I will simply list my other points, rather than describe them in detail.
Problematic Material in “Ninth House,” an incomplete list:
- Equating female drug dealers with prostitutes. Over and over, “Ninth House” depicts female drug dealers as being prostitutes. Alex, Tara, and other female drug dealers perform sexual acts that are depicted as a necessary part of selling drugs as a woman. In reality, the two jobs are NOT the same. Female drug dealers do NOT perform sexual acts in order to sell drugs to their customers. The fact that every female drug dealer in “Ninth House” was a prostitute in order to sell drugs was extremely insulting and just flat-out wrong. This was another example of the book’s relentless misogyny.
- Bardugo doesn’t really know what it feels like to grow up poor, and it shows. The details Bardugo uses to present Alex’s economically disadvantaged background all read like disjointed notes the author has gleaned from reading nonfiction books and memoirs about poverty. Everything felt slapped-on and fake about Alex’s background, because the truth is: this is not Bardugo’s own background at all. I grew up in poverty, and it was obvious to me that the economic details in “Ninth House” were contradictory, unrealistic, and badly executed. Being poor was simply part of the spectacle of this book.
- Alex’s years-long drug addiction vanishes the moment she is offered a place at Yale. Alex has no cravings or relapses; there is no actual reality of a drug addiction on display anywhere in this book. Similar to point #2, the reason for this ridiculous execution is that Bardugo herself has never suffered a drug addiction, which is why Alex’s drug addiction read as slapped-on and fake. Like Alex’s economically disadvantaged background, her drug addiction exists in the book as spectacle.
- Bardugo could have used Alex’s condition as a child who can see ghosts to discuss the ways in which many real-life children who are victims of incest, poverty, abuse, mental illness, exploitation, abandonment, and other traumas learn to use drugs to self-medicate. Many homeless, drug-addicted adults in the United States are childhood trauma survivors who are desperately trying to self-medicate, the same way that Alex started using drugs to numb the pain of her rape and ghost-seeing-ability at a young age. But Bardugo never draws these parallels in “Ninth House,” further emphasizing that this is not a book about solidarity with the disadvantaged or oppressed.
- The novel presents Dean Sandow as being the only dean at Yale. Sandow is repeatedly called “the dean,” even though Yale University has many different deans. The lack of any mention of other deans at Yale, especially when Dean Sandow was the penultimate villain, made “Ninth House” feel even more childish and naïve. Dean Sandow as a singular dean, along with the villain monologues in the denouement, contributed to how much this book read like Young Adult fiction, not adult horror or adult fantasy.
- Alex and Darlington are the only POV protagonists, and they have the same voice: the voice of the author, an omniscient narrative voice. For example, here is how Alex, a high school dropout, former drug addict, and former prostitute, describes a dressing room at one of the Lethe hideouts: “Darlington’s own clothes still hung there—a Barbour jacket, a striped Davenport College scarf, fresh jeans neatly folded and creased, perfectly broken-in engineer boots, and a pair of Sperry Top-Siders just waiting for Darlington to slip into them” (pg 72).
And here is how Alex describes a platter of food she is helping to serve at a professor’s party: “When Colin said to hand him the cheese, it took her a long moment to realize it was right in front of her: not platters of cubed cheddar but giant hunks of what looked like quartz and iolite, a tiny pot of honey, a spray of almonds. All of it art” (pg 340). I absolutely believe that Bardugo herself, a Yale graduate and member of the real-life Wolf’s Head secret society named in this book, would describe hunks of cheese looking like iolite, and knows what Sperry Top-Siders are. I definitely do NOT believe that Alex even knows this vocabulary, much less talks like this in her interior monologue.
- The reader is meant to have sympathy for Tara Hutchins as a murder victim because Tara is poor, a townie, and a woman, but Tara Hutchins spent years creating the magical date-rape drug Merity and selling Merity to rapists on campus. As the reader later learns, even after Tara knew what the drug was being used for, she continued to sell it to Blake. After Tara’s murder, Blake still has a substantial supply of Merity from Tara, because she never actually stopped making and selling the drug. Tara’s murder is the framing device for the entire novel, and Tara is an absolutely shitty person. Do I care that Dean Sandow murdered her? Hell no. This whole book is gross, and Tara is one of the grossest people I’ve ever encountered in a story. She is as vile as Blake is, and I am definitely not mourning Blake’s loss, either.
- By the time Tara is murdered, Darlington has been missing for almost three months, and Alex already knows that the eight magical houses at Yale can control people’s minds and behavior with magical objects and drugs. Alex herself uses a “coin of compulsion” early in the book while first investigating Tara’s murder (pg 53), and a few days later, when Alex watches the video of Mercy being raped, Alex immediately knows that Mercy has been drugged with Merity. The only mind-control drug that Alex isn’t aware of at the start of Chapter One is called “starpower,” which is introduced on page 255. Despite the fact that Alex knows mind-controlling objects and drugs exist at Yale, along with magical glamours that can make one person look like another, the criminal use of magic to murder Tara and manipulate Blake never factors into her own thinking until the climax of the novel. Alex’s lack of logical thinking is absolutely ridiculous, and another function of the Baffle the Reader with Bullshit premise of the novel’s elliptical timeline.
- The book demonizes trauma survivors. One of the most-quoted lines of this book appears on page 300, when Alex tells Darlington in interior monologue: “I let you die. To save myself, I let you die. That is the danger in keeping company with survivors.” I absolutely HATE this material. Those sentences are delivered as the truth, from the person who has become the story’s hero: Alex, the righteous warrior girl who single-handedly vanquishes the evil soul-eating Daisy in a Say Her Name intersectional feminist manifesto action sequence at the end of the book. Unlike Bardugo, I survived growing up in poverty, being raped as a small child, having homeless parents, drug addicted parents, mentally ill parents, and still arrived at college on a full-ride scholarship, the same way Alex does in this book, and I don’t walk around with an attitude that I have to “let people die” to save myself. Demonizing trauma survivors is morally wrong. And yet, those lines are so popular, they’re even quoted on the Goodreads review page for this book.
- On page 311, Alex says in dialogue, “We’re all racists,” as if acknowledging the size and scale of racism forgives the anti-Mexican content in this book. Sorry, but no. It doesn’t.
- If you claim to be a friend of a rape victim, and your friend’s gang-rape was videotaped, why would you ever watch the video of them being raped, and play it in front of them? Alex not only does this, but she does this less than 24 hours after Mercy was raped. Um, what?? What the hell is this even?? People actually think this situation was drawn from Bardugo’s real life, and Alex is acting like this?? Readers honestly think Bardugo has ever provided comfort for a friend right after a gang-rape, when she wrote an aftermath scene like this one into her novel?? As a voice of reason, I must emphatically state, there is absolutely NO way that Alex’s behavior after Mercy’s rape was drawn from real life. And as an added bonus, here’s a pro-tip for anyone who thinks a “good friend” would act like this: watching your friend’s videotaped gang-rape in front of them is NOT something a friend does. This is seriously FUCKED UP and this is NOT how you support victims.
That concludes my list of criticisms on the overall content of the book. Now I would like to make a list of craft issues I had with the text.
Writing Craft Flaws in “Ninth House,” an incomplete list:
- Ridiculously incorrect grammar.
I have always considered Bardugo to be an excellent writer on a sentence level. “Shadow and Bone” and “Six of Crows” are both competently written, and feature fine prose. But with “Ninth House,” Bardugo began making sloppy craft errors that made the book a slog to read. This was the first time I’ve seen her use the grammatical affectation of dropping conjunctions. It was a constant sentence structure motif on display throughout the entire book. Here is a short selection of these aggravating sentences:
“Alex set aside the aluminum container of cold falafel from Mamoun’s, wiped her hands on her Lethe House sweats.” (pg 3)
“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.” (pg 3)
“For the first time in weeks, she looked at the girl in the water-speckled mirror, watched as that bruised girl lifted her tank top, the cotton stained yellow with pus.” (pg 3)
“She picked up the Reuge music box from the desk, touched her finger to the lid, but then thought better of it, set it down.” (pg 66)
“Alex crossed to the window, pulled open the curtain.” (pg 196)
^^I really have no idea why Bardugo thought this affectation improved her writing. I think it’s hackneyed and annoying. I was definitely not a fan and I feel like Bardugo devolved as a writer when she published this book.
- Similes that are ridiculous or just wrong.
There were so many of these in the book, but this is the only one I will cite:
“The greatest gift Lethe had given Alex was not the full ride to Yale, the new start that had scrubbed her past clean like a chemical burn.” (pg 20)
^^In truth, chemical burns are NOT “clean” burns. I can well imagine every medical doctor and burn survivor saying, “WTF??” when they read that sentence. Chemical burns have massive variation, and that sentence is incredibly ignorant. Ridiculous similes like this one are not the kind of prose I expect from a bestselling author. Bardugo had beta-readers and editors for this book, and still no one caught that error. This level of ignorance is distressing.
- Overtly sexist dialogue that is upheld as “truth” in the narrative.
While a lot of the dialogue in “Ninth House” is pretty childish and ridiculous, and frequently gave me strong Nikolai vibes from Bardugo’s “Shadow and Bone” series, one exchange in particular topped my list of ignorant dialogue featured in the book. It’s an exchange between Professor Belbalm and Alex that takes place fairly early in the story:
“Only people who have never lived without comfort deride it as bourgeois.” She winked. “The purest Marxists are always men. Calamity comes too easily to women. Our lives can come apart in a single gesture, a rogue wave. And money? Money is the rock we cling to when the current would seize us.”
“Yes,” said Alex, leaning forward. This was what Alex’s mother had never managed to grasp. (pg 85)
^^Fun fact #1: No matter what genitalia a person might have, anyone’s life can come apart in a moment. Calamity can strike anyone, at any time.
Fun fact #2: People of all genders cling to money to keep themselves safe.
Fun fact #3: There are also “pure Marxists” who are women. You can even find their names by researching things like “women Marxists” at your local library.
Fun fact #4: At the very end of the book, Professor Belbalm is revealed to be the evil Mother Gothel Daisy, kept alive in Gladys’s body, but this early in the book, the character of Belbalm is simply a classy Yale professor spouting her wisdom, wisdom that Alex accepts as truth. The sexism in this dialogue goes unchecked in the narrative, and Belbalm’s “wisdom” about women and calamity never comes up again.
- Randomly, lazily repeated expository details.
Literary fiction will often repeat slightly-altered key details to enhance the thematic exposition of a novel, building upon the author’s chosen motifs in a masterful way. The repetition of detail in “Ninth House” was not masterful, however. It read as incompetent and lazy.
For example, here is how Alex describes the bland, “uniform” look the young women at Yale have in comparison to the women she knew in California:
“Who are you? Alex would sometimes think, looking at another girl in a navy peacoat, pale face like a waning moon beneath a wool cap, ponytail lying like a dead animal over her shoulder. Who are you?” (pg 77)
Later in the text, Alex describes the Yale student Salome Nils (the girl Alex threatens with breaking out her front teeth), in a nearly identical way:
“Now she looked at Salome Nils, lean and smooth-faced, a Connecticut girl who rode horses and played tennis, her heavy bronze ponytail tucked over one shoulder like an expensive pelt.” (pg 203)
The repetition that girls at Yale have pale, smooth, moon-faces and taxidermy-esque hair did not read like Bardugo was expanding her motif, but lazily repeating the same description she had already used. What felt “fresh” in Bardugo’s exposition the first time (pg 77) became stale when it reappeared later (pg 203).
I borrowed this book from the library, so I wasn’t able to annotate the text, but had I been able to do that, I would have pointed out more of the expository repetition in this book.
While repetitive description is annoying, what is far more egregious is how often Bardugo repeats key plot information. Either she didn’t trust her reader to remember critical information, or she was too lazy to remove the repetition from the text.
For example, in the first three chapters of the book, when Alex’s thru-story (her murder investigation during her spring semester at Yale) is first established, it is made clear to the reader that Darlington has been missing for some time (approximately three months), and no one knows where he is. Alex has been instructed to tell everyone that Darlington is in Spain on a study abroad program (pg 51). It is made clear to the reader that this is only a cover story, not the truth. This information is repeated over and over throughout the book. By the time I arrived at page 299, and Alex tells the reader, YET AGAIN: “Darlington was not abroad. He was not in Spain,” I felt so insulted that I just wanted to scream. I marked this page in my notes by writing: “No shit, Sherlock, I heard you the first one hundred times this was explained. Can we just get on with the story now and stop repeating things I already know??”
When authors repeat information like this, it’s called USELESS DRAG. “Ninth House” is full of useless drag.
I would not call the prose of “Ninth House” literary at all, but commercial fiction that tries to be literary and fails. For all of the graphic violence depicted in this book, the storytelling is utterly boring, and on a sentence level, the amount of repetition in the prose is punishing to read.
- Bardugo forces the reader to inference, and then spells out the inference material later, in the most ham-fisted way.
This problem is related to point #4, and I think it’s so noticeable because of the commercial fiction/elliptical timeline storytelling structure Bardugo chose.
For example, on pages 8 and 9, the SSS building is first introduced. The reader can quickly and easily infer that SSS stands for “Sheffield-Sterling-Strathcona Hall,” because the full name of the building appears soon after “SSS” appears.
Later, on page 95, this dialogue exchange takes place between Darlington and Alex:
Alex blew out a breath. “Founded in 1910. Rooms consecrated in Sheffield-Sterling-Strathcona Hall—”
“Save yourself the mouthful. Everyone calls it SSS.”
^^If a novel is going to feature dialogue like this, there is no point in forcing your reader to needlessly infer. This is more of the useless drag that utterly characterizes “Ninth House.”
In the end, my biggest problem with “Ninth House” was that the story was disjointed, melodramatic, and profoundly dull, and finally ends with Alex asking her friends Michelle and Dawes, “Who’s ready to go to hell?” (pg 450), indicating that the sequel will mimic Dante’s “Inferno” in order for Alex to rescue Darlington in book 2 of this proposed five-book series. I found Alex’s question rather ludicrous since the world of “Ninth House” was already hell: literally, a realm of hungry ghosts. The Grays in “Ninth House” prey on the living; the ghosts constantly seek human blood, sugar, happiness, and other necessities to feed on from other people, and Grays can even rape children. Only a select few people like Alex can even see these predators, and the story makes it clear that Grays are everywhere in the human world, not just in magical “nexuses” like New Haven and Yale. Since no one at Yale gives a shit about anyone but themselves, and Alex Stern is the absolute standard of moral goodness in this story, the real hell in this book is the world as it is, not the realm of the hellbeast that swallowed Darlington.
I certainly won’t be reading any of the sequels. My journey with these characters ends here.
Negative three hundred stars. Not recommended.