First off, can I just say that Bardugo hit it out of the park with her first adult novel?
I have a weakness for school stories. And if the school happens to be magical in some way, so much the better. But very rarely have I come across a book that involves a school imbued with magic where only a select few students are aware of the supernatural element. I’ve read books were there were secretly vampires or werewolves on campus, not not sanctioned magical societies that had to fly under the collegiate radar. The fact that said magical society were on the campus of a real university, Yale, made things even more interesting. These slight variations made for a fresh take on a favorite trope.
“New Haven was a town forever on the brink of things.”
Alex (short for Galaxy, and how cool is that?) Stern is in over her head. She was offered a place at Yale if she became a member of Lethe, the less famous magical society that polices the others, the famed Houses of the Veil. Because she has nothing and nowhere and no one else, she jumps at the chance. But Alex isn’t a brainiac, or wealthy, or from a well-to-do family, or even an upstanding citizen. She just sees ghosts. That’s it. That’s the entire reason she’s been given such a profound opportunity to change her life. Even though she’s trying her hardest to balance her classes and campus life with her Lethe responsibilities, she just can’t seem to keep all of her balls in the air. As things start to fall apart, Alex is terrified that this new life, her one shot at something more, is going to be taken away from her. But Alex is a fighter, a survivor, and she’s not going to give up and just walk away. Especially when there are not one but two mysteries to solve. And one of those mysteries involves a dead girl who reminds her so strongly of the friend she lost that Alex can’t let it go, even when trying to solve this particular mystery puts her in terrible danger. There are real stakes to her story, and I was completely enthralled by every page.
“You couldn’t keep sidling up to death and dipping your toe in. Eventually it grabbed your ankle and tried to pull you under.”
Bardugo did a brilliant job with the mystery elements, never giving things away too quickly. I was surprised by multiple twists, and I really appreciated how these weren’t “aha!” moments as much as they were a peeling away of another layer. I also loved the setting, and that the magic hiding beneath the surface in the version of our world that Bardugo has crafted is so varied and unexplained. Each of the Houses of the Veil specializes in a particular type of magic, and I appreciated that all the magic practiced came at a price, and usually a steep one at that. But the star of the book wasn’t the mystery, or the magic, or the setting. Without a doubt, Alex was what made this story so special.
“Take me back. Make me into someone who has never been done harm. Go as far as you can. Make me brand-new. No bruises. No scars.”
Joe Hill said that Alex is a heroine with “a bruised heart and bleeding knuckles,” and I can’t think of a more perfect description. Alex is first and foremost a survivor, and that brings with in attributes and failings that make for a very interesting, realistic character. Survivors are fighters by nature, but those who have survived trauma also have a tendency to protect themselves above all others. This means that Alex isn’t always loyal. She’s not selfless or optimistic or principled or trusting. She’s wily and suspicious and underhanded when she needs to be. Above all, she’s broken, and is trying to put herself back together the best she can. Some such characters can feel very alienating to readers but Alex has this cautious vulnerability and fragile hope to her that made me instantly care deeply about her. There’s one scene of her alone towards the end of the book that I found so raw and empowering that it made my heart feel like it would burst; I was just so darn proud of her in that moment.
“Peace was like any high. It couldn’t last. It was an illusion, something that could be interrupted in a moment and lost forever.”
I’m so glad that Bardugo didn’t give into the pressure to put include content warnings with this book. Had they been included, they would’ve spoiled so much of the story. Yes, this is a dark tale, very dark in places, and there is indeed some uncomfortable, disturbing content. But it’s an ADULT BOOK. If you’re afraid of being triggered, read early reviews. Talk to those who have already read the book and ask if there’s anything you should watch out for. Don’t become so fixated on being forewarned about any topic that is uncomfortable that you ruin the book for everyone else. While I don’t agree with content warnings for the most part, I can see where they would be appropriate for certain middle grade and young adult fiction. But we’re grown ups. We should know what we can and can’t handle without requiring authors to spoil their own books to appease us.
Okay, end rant.
We are the shepherds. The time for that was done. Better to be a rattler. Better to be a jackal.
If you couldn’t tell, I really loved this book. While it was a dark tale, it wasn’t hopeless by any means. I love that Bardugo gave us a satisfying ending to this particular story while still leaving Alex’s world wide open for further exploration. I can’t wait to see what Bardugo writes next. And I’ll definitely be preordering the next installment in this series as soon as I can.
You can purchase a copy of the book here, with free shipping worldwide!