Inside Leigh Bardugo's debut adult novel: Secret societies, college co-eds, and more
For the uninitiated, Leigh Bardugo’s Ninth House might seem like your standard campus novel. It takes place over one year at Yale University, with settings like the freshman dormitories, sprawling historical homes, and hidden libraries, and it’s dotted with all the talismans of an elite school: impossibly chic professors, Calder sculptures, countless fireplaces.
But the author’s legions of dedicated fans know that the tome represents several big turning points. It’s Bardugo’s ninth novel (the first eight have sold more than 3 million copies, and two are on the precipice of Netflix adaptations), it’s her first to take place in a wholly realistic setting (as opposed to the fantastical realms of her previous books), and it marks her adult debut.
Oh, and it imagines the Ancient Eight secret societies of Yale as black magic keepers, overseen by a selective group of students who can quite literally see dead people.
It’s worth getting one thing out of the way: Bardugo didn’t go about the switch from YA to adult intentionally, so fans of her previous work can rest easy that she hasn’t written off the genre for good. Instead, she says that the story of Ninth House simply needed to be told and did not belong in the YA category. It’s a book that, according to Bardugo, has two origins. She began to contemplate the framework of Ninth House as an undergraduate at Yale, thrilled by the idea of the campus’ many secret societies, operating a complex world hidden from the rest of the school.
“Ninth House is also mined from taking an uncomfortable look at the way I treated myself [as an undergraduate],” she tells EW. “And the way that my friends treated each other, and how we survived a time when we didn’t even have language for some of what we were going through.”
The novel’s protagonist is Alex Stern (short for Galaxy, because this is a Leigh Bardugo novel), a troubled teen plucked from, if not obscurity then certainly a dark ambiguity in the San Fernando Valley, and dropped into the freshman class at Yale thanks to a legal and financial helping hand from a mysterious group. She is tapped as a member of Lethe, a group tasked with overseeing the underground (and very dangerous) sorcery of the school’s secret societies.
In Bardugo’s version of the Ivy League, Skull and Bones and its nefarious brethren keep their power and influence by performing ritualistic sacrifices and other black magic on the citizens of New Haven. Alex and her Lethe comrades find themselves caught in a rite gone awry, the drama of which is compounded by her ability to see Grays (the Bardugian term for ghosts) and the trauma embedded from her dangerous former life.
While the occult aspects of Ninth House are fictional, much of the story is real. The history of the university, the campus inside jokes, the architecture, and of course the societies are all based on Bardugo’s own time at Yale, which she has described as her Hogwarts. There are now hundreds of groups operating within the school’s walls, and the Ancient Eight (Skull and Bones, Scroll and Key, Book and Snake, Wolf’s Head, Manuscript, Aurelian, St. Elmo’s, and Berzelius) have a way of presiding ominously over the school, thanks in part to the formidable structures they occupy.
The author was also able to draw on the sizable number of conspiracy theorists devoted to outing the societies’ practices for her research, and she admits to going down several Illuminati rabbit holes. But don’t let these veiled groups trick you into thinking she was intimidated by the story.
“Let me put it this way,” she says with a laugh. “If you’re going to build a giant red stone neo-Egyptian keep in the middle of campus, there is some desire to be speculated about. Otherwise you’d hold your meetings someplace a lot more inconspicuous.”
Fans of the Shadow and Bone trilogy and Six of Crows duology may gravitate toward the more arcane portions of the plot, but Alex offers a complex protagonist for those just joining Bardugo’s work. She has, as the author describes, a ruthlessness in her that comes from a deep survival instinct (which is explained as her backstory unfolds throughout the book), and she frequently toes the line between hero and antihero. It’s a side that Bardugo identifies with and saw reflected back in her observances of modern college life.
“There were times in the writing of Ninth House where I thought, ‘have I gone too far?’” she says. “Am I writing the memory of an undergraduate experience, as opposed to an undergraduate experience? And then my Google alerts would ping and I would think, ‘No, I haven’t gone far enough.’”
Ninth House is available now.