41 pages 1 hour read

Leigh Bardugo

Ninth House

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 2019

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Summary and Study Guide


Ninth House is a 2019 contemporary occult fantasy novel by American writer Leigh Bardugo. Inspired by the author’s undergraduate experiences at Yale University, Ninth House is part of the Alex Stern series with the next book planned for release in 2021. The story is set in a macabre version of the real world and focuses on the occult culture fostered by a set of Yale secret societies, which seek power and wealth through death-related magic. The story is told from the alternating viewpoints of a former drug addict and medium, Alex Stern, and her mentor, college senior Daniel Arlington (known as Darlington). The novel’s vivid world takes a critical look at the privileged lifestyle of Yale’s young men and women who have power over life and death, but no real empathy for others or understanding of what responsibility means. Chronologically, the story alternates between the end of the spring semester, the beginning of the fall one, and the winter months, with frequent flashbacks to Alex’s and Darlington’s childhood and teenage years. The plot is also interspersed with excerpts from historical documents providing background on the various societies.


The study guide refers to the 2019 hardback edition by Flatiron Books.


Plot Summary


Galaxy Stern, nicknamed Alex, is a young woman of mixed heritage living in California with her free-spirited mother. She sees and interacts with ghosts, which leads her to drug addiction as a means of escape. By 15, she has dropped out of school and is living with her drug dealer boyfriend and her best friend, Hellie. At an out of control party, Hellie dies from overdose after several men rape her. Traumatized and grieving, Alex lets her best friend’s ghost take over her body and, together, they kill all those responsible. Afterwards, Alex is hospitalized and arrested, but her ability to see ghosts brings her to the attention of Yale’s Lethe House, one of the secret societies dealing with magic; Dean Sandow offers her a new life and a free ride.


Lethe is the ninth society, established to oversee all the others. Its members are supposed to act as shepherds, making sure that everyone is conducting their rituals safely and no students or faculty are affected by magic. The person in charge of overseeing the rituals is traditionally an upperclassman who holds the title of Virgil and who trains a first-year student, or Dante, to take up their place. When Alex arrives to Yale, Virgil is Daniel Arlington, or Darlington, a local young man from an impoverished family of former industrialists, who has lived alone at a run-down mansion not far from campus since his grandfather’s death seven years ago. Darlington is known as the “gentleman of Lethe” because of his impeccable manners and upstanding character. His entire life he has been fascinated with magic and the occult and has developed a romanticized vision of death and the supernatural. Darlington’s task is to train Alex to take his place, but he is unprepared for a street smart and vulgar girl of mixed heritage without even a GED. After a rocky start, however, Darlington and Alex learn to work together and, gradually, come to understand each other better.


After a few months, a routine check goes wrong and Darlington disappears. Dean Sandow believes a portal has gone wrong and prepares a ceremony to bring the young man back at the next new moon. However, the ritual seems to fail and what appears instead is a hellbeast, which the dean  successfully banishes.


In the meantime, Alex is in charge of making sure each society performs its rituals in a safe manner. However, she is overwhelmed by her schoolwork and often runs late to events. One evening, during a prognostication ritual for predicting the stock markets through vivisection, Alex notices that the ghosts, or Greys, are behaving in a strange manner. That same night, a local girl named Tara is murdered not far from the Yale gym. Alex investigates the case, as the dead woman reminds her strongly of her friend Hellie.


The investigation puts Alex in danger when someone tries to kill her. A local ghost, the Bridegroom, who purportedly killed his finance and then himself more than a century ago, helps her out and they strike a deal. In return for his finding Tara’s spirit on the other side, Alex will investigate the Bridegroom’s case—the ghost believes that someone else killed him and his fiancée Daisy.


Eventually, Alex finds out that Tara’s murder is the result of Dean Sandow’s need for money after his divorce. One of the societies lost its headquarters a while ago and desires a new one. Believing that the power nexuses on which all the Houses stand happened after the deaths of several young women, Dean Sandow arranged to kill Tara on an empty plot of land. However, the murder did not succeed in creating a place of power.


When Alex confronts Dean Sandow at the President’s house, another professor, Marguerite Belbalm, joins them and reveals that she is, in fact, Daisy, and that the nexuses are the result of her devouring the souls of the dead young women. She kills the dean and attempts to devour Alex, but Alex calls on the dead for help, freeing the souls the professor had absorbed. The older woman disintegrates.


A few days later, at the dean’s funeral, Alex shares with other two young women involved in Lethe that a hellbeast sent by Dean Sandow consumed Darlington, who managed to survive the ordeal and is now in Hell in the guise of a gentleman demon. The three of them plan to bring him back.