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Leigh Bardugo Brews a Witchy Tale of Ghosts, Dark Magic and Murder

By Leigh Bardugo

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.

The newest recruit to Lethe is Galaxy Stern, who has a very troubled past and, relatedly, has the rare and quite awful ability to see ghosts. Turns out they’re all around us! She is grateful, we slowly learn, to start over at Yale. Her story and the inevitable abuses of power she encounters unfold together.

When Galaxy is first shown magic, she is like all of us, or at least every character in this genre, in her relief that “the world they’d been promised as children was not something that had to be abandoned, that there really was something lurking in the wood, beneath the stairs, between the stars, that everything was full of mystery.”

As we grow up, we may start to believe this anyway, even without the spells and the extra-secret society.

This is Bardugo’s first adult book, but her young adult novels aren’t lacking for horniness or violence (the antihero of her Six of Crows duology lustily gouges out an eye in one particularly gross passage). Nor do these young person’s books lack for quite sophisticated and intelligent craft. Bardugo’s greatest power is ushering readers of any age through big, cast-heavy books with clarity and narrative precision. She is great at crime capers and misdirection. She can move groups of characters around a made-up city or a magical New Haven with equal ease.

Given the amount of sexual assault, drugs and torture I’ve consumed in entertainment aimed at young people, I couldn’t possibly identify what makes this book any more adult. Except: In literature intended for young people, the mature reader of any age can sometimes feel a bit led around by the nose. Most writers worried about the attention spans of their youngest teenage readers hit various nails on the head a little too clangily. Not Bardugo. But in “Ninth House” she seems to feel freer to let us into her world more abruptly, with a bit more terror and a bit less hand-holding.

For any audience, Bardugo makes unexpectedly strong rivers of stories, purposed by swift currents of feeling. As you step further into the nasty and confusing dark of “Ninth House,” you feel for her caught-up characters. That’s what usually gets discarded first in these genres when writers get distracted by world-building or struggle with plot. But Bardugo’s characters feel real — and she doesn’t forget that everyone hurts.

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