The Ninth House: Powerlessness corrupts

I’ve already written a quick review of The Ninth House, which is my favorite urban fantasy title of this year after Middlegame. But I wanted to do a deep dive into why I found this book so engaging for me. Welcome, then, to a slightly spoilery and more in-depth discussion of The Ninth House, Leigh Bardugo’s adult debut.

There are so many things to like about this book. The pacing and the timing of it are excellent – splitting the viewpoints, allowing the reader to discover information not as it chronologically occurs but in the moments that will have the most impact. The writing leaps off the page. But the thing that most engaged me when reading this book was the central premise: a girl with nothing, scrabbling for a future alongside a bunch of kids who have everything. This is the central theme of The Ninth House. Power, affluence – these are their own kinds of self-reinforcing magic. The gravity of them is inescapable. The system is entrenched.

We often say that power corrupts. It’s true that power makes it easier to ignore the effects you have on others. This is a kind of corruption. But power is also invisible to those who have it.

Powerlessness, on the other hand… that brings everything into sharp relief.

Galaxy Stern sees herself as relatively powerless at the start of the book. This is probably, at least in part, because of her trauma. Part of it is also because of her life experiences – constantly being cast out, derided, and abused, being treated as an object and taken advantage of. She is told throughout the book that she is less, that she is nothing but food for the powerful – at times literally. She believes this story to her gut. She is trying so hard to be Darlington, her mentor – even though Darlington is dead. Even though he wasn’t enough. She wants to play by the rules. To belong.

She finds her power only when she is made to see these webs for what they really are. Yes, she is outside of the systems of power that are so deeply entrenched at Yale. It becomes clear that if she wants to enter that world through normal doors, she will be made to give up everything for the acceptance she longs for. But this is a trap. In this case powerlessness doesn’t just corrupt. It is corruption. It is Galaxy Stern trying to be someone she is not, and in the process, giving up the power that she has because others deem it illegitimate.

This book spoke to me on a level that few books have this year. It spoke to the things that are broken in our world, without glossing over them with magic. Instead, the magic casts these cracks into sharp relief. I can’t wait for the next installment in this series, and I hope that Bardugo will continue to examine these ideas going forward.

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