It’s Like “The Sixth Sense.” But Good.

Great news! I have the perfect book for this Halloween season and I’m only two weeks late! That might not seem particularly helpful now, but all things being equal, this is the perfect book for any season, especially the wet, cold, and dark days of November through…(sigh) May. Leigh Bardugo is a name I’ve mentioned here before. Her Grishaverse novels are among my favorites, so I was ready to love Ninth House, her debut for adult audiences. Yet even with high expectations, it left me incredibly impressed and desperate for a sequel. 

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Alex Stern can see dead people. While this might seem neat to the gothically inclined, it makes Alex’s life a nightmare. For as long as she can remember, ghosts have lurked around her, decorated with the grisly evidence of their unseemly demises (semi-decapitated heads, gunshot wounds, etc.). Her grim ‘ability’ drives her in a dangerous direction – she is a teenage runaway under the influence of drugs, alcohol, and selfish, manipulative men. And yet, when she wakes in a hospital after a violent and tragic night, a tidy gentleman is waiting by her bedside suggesting that her power might open doors to a fresh start in an unlikely environment – Yale University. 

It turns out that New Haven, Connecticut is a city brimming with potent magic. This supernatural resource is channeled by eight ancient houses at Yale which operate under the guise of secret societies, while playing a huge role in world affairs, from throwing elections, to manipulating securities markets, to boosting pop star’s careers. This magic, however, can be extremely dangerous which is why a ninth house, Lethe, was formed to monitor the use of magic by Yale’s young elites. With her powerful connection to the supernatural, Lethe believes that Alex will make a valuable warden against the abuse of magic.  

Alex is assigned to train under the wing of Darlington, an uptight but brilliant and charismatic senior. Darlington has high standards and is skeptical that Alex has the necessary character or background to thrive in this world. At first, Darlington appears to be correct. Alex struggles to learn the rites and history that Lethe demands of her, while also suffering from the academic pressure of student life at Yale and the weight of managing a secret life as a college freshman. Just as she begins to get a feel for her many different roles at Yale, everything falls apart. Darlington disappears under strange and sinister circumstances and a young woman is murdered on campus, with Alex suspecting involvement by at least one of the houses. Alex is left to deal with magical forces she is only beginning to understand, indifferent bureaucracies, and rich, privileged, students who are empowered by a heady mix of supernatural power, generational wealth, and good old-fashioned toxic masculinity. Oh, also someone definitely wants Alex dead, and is not being shy about it. 

Ninth House is told in a non-linear fashion. I’m an impatient reader, and I am often annoyed by this style of storytelling, but not when a master of the genre like Bardugo is at the helm. Alex is an incredibly fun protagonist to follow – she is both self-aware and self-destructive, incredibly capable, but not unrealistically so, and a narrator of very questionable reliability. Bardugo is not just a deft writer, but also a thoughtful one. She is able to take a thrilling story of magic, power, and corruption and weave in a mediation on the destructive power of trauma without a whiff of heavy-handed moralizing. Books with magic can be a tricky proposition, especially for adult audiences, but Bardugo manages to make the magic in Alex’s world both frighteningly powerful and almost laughably mundane, grounding the supernatural in the onerous burden of everyday reality. Ninth House has already been picked up as a potential streaming series, which is why I looked up from the book and exclaimed to my partner “they have to cast Danny DeVito as Anderson Cooper!” But you’ll have to read the book to understand why.

Enter the Grishaverse

I usually try to approach book-to-screen adaptations with a fair bit of skepticism. Sure, they sometimes work out, but I’m a levelheaded guy who controls his impulses and manages his expectations with Jedi-like discipline. Just kidding! I never learn my lesson. Every time I hear about a new adaptation, my hope spirals out of control. Why keep your cool and be pleasantly surprised when you can build unrealistic expectations and experience utter devastation?

This might explain why I’m ecstatic that Rick Famuyiwa will direct Children of Blood and Bone. And why I refuse to worry that Brian K. Vaughan’s Y, the Last Man (already shortened by FX to Y, which definitely isn’t a bad sign, right?) will use CGI for Ampersand the monkey. And when Netflix announced an adaptation of Leigh Bardugo’s Grishaverse, I really lost it. I can’t remember the last time I was this excited for a TV show.

So, what exactly is the Grishaverse? Leigh Bardugo has written seven books in this world so far, with at least one more in the pipeline and rumors of several more to follow. This world is first introduced in Bardugo’s Grisha trilogy: Shadow and Bone, Siege and Storm, and Ruin and Rising. These books are set in Ravka, a land both on the brink of civil war, and facing encroaching threats from powerful nations at its borders. Complicating matters further, Ravka’s military is divided into two groups. The first of these is a pretty straightforward army. But Ravka’s Second Army is composed of magic wielders known as Grisha and led by the Darkling, a mysterious, ambitious, and charismatic young man who also happens to be the world’s most powerful Grisha. Like many misunderstood groups, the Grisha have long suffered abuse in Ravka and other nations and the Darkling seems bent on not just defeating foreign enemies, but also securing permanent power for himself and Grisha dominance throughout society.

This trilogy focuses on a young orphan named Alina. When her powers as a Grisha manifest, it becomes clear that she has a unique and legendary gift. She quickly finds herself in an elevated position, both courted and mentored by the Darkling. Alina quickly learns that she will need to navigate many dangers: jealous rivals, court intrigue, foreign assassins, and the Darkling’s morally ambiguous schemes, while learning to develop her power and determining which decisions she makes might save her country and which might lead to its ruin.

While I love Alina’s story, it isn’t necessarily where I recommend readers begin. My first foray into Bardugo’s thrilling work was the duology composed of Six of Crows and Crooked Kingdom. These stories take place after the events of the Grisha trilogy, and follow a ruthless, scrappy, and irresistible group of criminals when they take a job breaking into an impenetrable fortress and rescuing a scientist who possesses incredibly powerful and dangerous knowledge. I don’t want to say a lot more about these books – they’re filled with twists, betrayals, and cliffhangers that I don’t want to risk ruining. I will say, however, that the characters in these books are immensely likable, their relationships are complicated in ways that are both satisfying and maddening, and that Bardugo’s work in this series is as strong as any fantasy writing that I’ve read. The best description I’ve seen for these books is Game of Thrones meets a heist movie. If that doesn’t have you chomping at the bit, check your pulse.

King of Scars, Bardugo’s latest work, is the first book in a new duology. Virtually any details about this novel would spoil the earlier books. Suffice it to say, this new release follows a cursed king as he deals with dangerous new threats, a returning menace, and two very, very badass Grisha. For fans of deep dives, there is also The Language of Thorns. This collection of short stories brings to life the myths and fairy tales of the Grishaverse. This is a worthy read, and ties in nicely with the traditions that crop up throughout all these books.

It’s been a pleasure to read (and re-read) these books and watch as Bardugo’s sharp and witty writing has matured. Over the course of these seven books, she has built a world filled with magic, intrigue, and adventure. I eagerly await more Grishaverse novels, and will be following every update on the miniseries with bated breath. Don’t screw this up, Netflix.