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Leigh Bardugo’s Fantasy Novel Set In The Ivy League Is Exactly What You’d Expect


Leigh Bardugo, the author of more than half a dozen bestselling young adult fantasy novels, is having a great year. In January, the latest of her YA fantasies dropped onto The New York Times bestseller list. That same month, she announced that Netflix would be turning her earlier “Shadow and Bone” trilogy into a television series.

Now she is out with a new book, Ninth House, billed as her debut “adult” novel and blurbed enthusiastically by Steven King and The Magicians author Lev Grossman. Just a few days after its publication, Ninth House was picked up for television development by Amazon.

Ninth House is set at Yale University, Bardugo’s alma mater (and mine). In her novel, Yale’s secret societies, those clubhouses for the elite such as Skull and Bones, Book and Snake, and Manuscript, practice magic. It turns out that the old boy network owes its wealth and influence to the supernatural.

Alex Stern, the book’s heroine, is a scholarship student tapped for membership in Bardugo’s invented ninth secret society, Lethe, which plays the role of a kind of magical ombudsman, monitoring the other houses to keep criminal behavior, or at least public scandal from the societies, to a minimum. Lethe is also tasked with keeping at bay New Haven’s many ghosts, the restless spirits who might use the various magical rituals performed by the secret societies as opportunities to break into our world. (I know what you’re thinking: these college kids and their safe spaces…)

Magic and Man at Yale

With such a specific setting—the book even comes with a detailed map of the campus—one is not surprised to see mention of some of the controversies connected with Yale in recent years and with higher education more generally. The book may have been written too recently to register the bribery scandal in which wealthy parents paid tens of thousands of dollars to get their underachieving children into Yale, Stanford, the University of Southern California, and other schools.

Yet Bardugo does nod to Yale’s 2015 Halloween controversy, in which two distinguished faculty members ultimately left the university when their suggestion that administrators shouldn’t police Halloween costumes met student outrage and accusations of racism. Bardugo, though, reduces the student fury to “judgmental snipes.”

She references approvingly the 2016 smashing of a stained glass window on campus depicting plantation slaves picking cotton, as well as the university’s decision to change the name of one of its residential colleges from Calhoun, named for the nineteenth-century pro-slavery politician, to Hopper, an African-American Yale graduate, Navy admiral, and computer scientist.

And what about the Democrat-instigated media circus over Supreme Court justice and Yale graduate Brett Kavanaugh, the target of outlandish and unsubstantiated accusations of sexual assault, some, according to a discredited New York Times report, supposed to have taken place at Yale? Is it a coincidence that Bardugo’s novel features a frat boy serial rapist whose initials are B.K.?

Topical references aside, the book as a whole is presented as a critique of the Ivy League elite. The secret societies incubate the people “who literally steer governments, the wealth of nations, who forge the shape of culture. They’ve run everything from the United Nations to Congress to The New York Times to the World Bank.” Among their magical cheats is a mind-control potion named “Merity,” a name satirizing these students’ pretention to being the best and the brightest.

The protagonist is an underdog, a girl who had been living on the streets of Los Angeles, contending with drug addiction and abuse from her pimp boyfriend. The opportunity she is given for a better life through acceptance to Yale brings her into conflict with the dark secrets of the university’s sources of wealth, power, and status, and those who will kill to protect those secrets.

A Pose of Rebelliousness

This could make for pointed satire. Unfortunately, Bardugo’s book is mostly an earnest revenge-of-the-underdog fantasy so lazy and self-congratulatory that instead of a critique it amounts to a pose of rebelliousness, very much in keeping with the campus ethos it purports to attack.

Bardugo’s villains are cartoonish stereotypes of wealthy WASPs who seem to be imported from 1980s Hollywood films. We have fraternity rapist Blake Keeley, a rich blonde kid who is also an Abercrombie and Fitch model. Bardugo describes him as being “strong from lacrosse and vanity.” Keeley is in cahoots with Tripp Helmuth, apparently another escapee from the Cobra Kai dojo of “The Karate Kid.” Heartless Salome Nils is “a Connecticut girl who rode horses and played tennis, her heavy bronze ponytail tucked over one shoulder like an expensive pelt.” You get the idea.

Politically correct boxes are ticked mechanically throughout. The victim of the fraternity rape is Asian-American, the gruff but decent New Haven police detective who assists Alex in solving a campus murder mystery is African-American, and one of the few female villains is a wealthy white woman who fails to check her privilege. In the the novel’s final pages, the arch-villain is exposed and accused of killing “Immigrant girls. Brown girls. Poor girls.” Apparently, the real objection to serial murder is when it punches down.

As a Jewish Yale graduate like Bardugo, I found it odd that she designates only her heroine as Jewish—Alex quotes the Ladino of her Sephardic grandmother throughout the book—seeming to make this part of the character’s underdog resume.

I graduated in 1990, a good five years or so before Bardugo, and there were no shortage of Jewish Yalies, including members of the secret societies. (Just ask members of my graduating class like the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank or Slate’s Dahlia Lithwick.) If anything, while remnants of the old money WASP network could still be found on campus—not magical as far as I could tell—it seemed like a quaint holdover rather than any gatekeeper to Ivy League advancement.

But Bardugo has written a fantasy of her own outsiderness. The book’s moral lines are kept simplistically neat by making her evident alter-ego a plucky outsider who is entirely untainted by the structures of power to which she now belongs. A different novel, in which the main character saw herself as being in some way implicated in the failings of her own milieu, would have been more compelling and more human, if harder to pull off.

Despite its occasionally graphic content and billing as an “adult novel,” though, Ninth House is another YA fantasy. Alex is the cool, angry girl from the streets, who harbors dark secrets that no one can understand. Bardugo never tires of telling us, teen diary-like, “She did not look wholesome. She did not belong.”

When she arrives at Yale she has her tattoos magically removed but, before she administers her final ass-kicking, she restores them for maximum goth impact. And, naturally, she sleeps with the book’s one sensitive and decent WASP, as any sentimental romance would insist on. His name is Darlington.

Higher Education and its Failings

The real Yale is indeed marked by serious failings, which it shares with much of higher education. These failings include its questionable commitment to free speech, ideological conformity, and more generally an uncertainty about what the educational values of the university really are.

In fact, the most damning critique of Yale to be found in Bardugo’s novel is that not a single character in the book, including the heroine, thinks that the point to being there is to learn. Actual education, in the sense of moral, philosophical, and spiritual formation and growth, is nowhere to be found on this campus. When Alex wants to join a literary salon held by one of the faculty it is because, with its canapes and sherry glasses, it offers her a feeling of status and security. The pursuit of beauty and truth? Not so much.

Yet the social justice dichotomies and anti-white-privilege gestures with which Bardugo has built her novel are part of the arsenal used today by our elites to maintain their conviction of their own moral superiority, and their hold on status and power. Rather than question these contemporary enchantments, Ninth House is content to exploit them.

The book has received enthusiastic if sometimes vapid reviews in The Washington Post (“an engrossing, unnerving thriller”) and Vox (“so immersive . . . it didn’t seem possible that anything else in the world could ever have existed”), NPR (“so readable”) and The New York Times (“wonderful”). The Amazon TV series will surely cast the same spell. This magic works.