So many, many, many reasons to read this book. First, Bardugo is one of my favorite authors, so of course I was going to check out her debut foray into adult fantasy. Second, basically there is not a single bad review to be found anywhere for this book. Third, just look at it. Fourth, and maybe most important, but really, all the reasons are legit, read that description: magic university societies?! Yes, please! I usually read more than one book at a time, but the moment I picked this one up, it was a sprint to the finish, with no time or interest in anything else.
Alex Stern has a proverbially checkered past (drug-dealing, multiple unsolved homicide survivor), but after being offered a spot at Yale in return for services only she can provide, she’s hoping to turn things around. What is it, you may ask, that only Alex, a young girl with minimal academic qualifications, can offer Yale? Well, Alex can see ghosts. That’s right. And that’s of great value to the major secret magic societies that thrive in New Haven. But the trade-off, of course, is never as straightforward as it seems. And soon Alex finds herself fighting, mostly on her own, against some over-powerful people who’ve never heard the word no and are taking advantage of their magics, without a mentor (because, naturally, he’s been transported into another dimension).
This novel is literally everything that it promises to be with a premise like that. And let me just start by saying how much I love this premise. I mean, magic and university life have always been a great mix for fantasy-lovers, but this one takes it to another level. This is going to sound a little…unreasonable…but let me just say that the best part of this fantasy is how true it rings. There are so many rumors about secret societies at ivy league/old universities, ones that produce myriad influencers/one-percenters…how much of a leap is it, really, to add in the hypothesis that these societies have managed to harness magic and that explains some of their many successes? Honestly, not that farfetched at all. All the jealously guarded secrets would be just as jealously guarded in that case, if not more so. Anyways, either you’re with me on that or not, but on a personal level, I love how much this fantasy was based in and carried out in such a “real” life way. It’s exactly the kind of thing that magic-lovers want to be true more that anything else (trust me, I’m one of them) and it’s handled in a way that makes it legitimately seem possible. So awesome!
As far as the plot itself, it played out a bit like a regular mystery/thriller would. It’s got the gothic feels you’d expect from a “secret magic society on an ivy league campus” story, especially one that centers in major part around ghosts and our MC’s ability to see and converse with them. And that ambience was so well-developed and portrayed. But even more than that, the entire murder-mystery aspect, as well as deciphering what happened to Alex’s mentor Darlington, was just fun to read. Don’t get me wrong, I love an epic fantasy saga as much as the next person (and Bardugo’s other books, everything in the Grishaverse, provide that in spades), but this is a kind of magical old-school whodunit that was just entertaining from start to finish – I was invested in everything as it unfolded and struggled to put the book down, but at the same time never felt overly emotionally stressed by the reading experience. Escapism at its finest!
In addition, I lived Alex as our heroine. She was a fantastically written “normal” person thrust into a leading role. And it was done well so that it never leaned over into the “savior” side of things. She had a knack for survival and a special skill that helped her [barely] survive, but she would have lost the game (and her life) much earlier without all the help of her incredibly competent peers. Plus, the focus on her own “wants,” – to be as successful as possible with this second chance she was gifted, as well as to experience a more typical college life – stayed constant throughout and I appreciated that as well. Plus, Bardugo wrote Alex, a person thrust into a “typical” college life, and seeing that type of life through “fresh” eyes, if you will, so well – it is always great to get a different perspective on things because it highlights both the greatness and ridiculousness of situations that are sometimes so familiar that we can no longer see them objectively, for what they really are. Plus, it allowed for some really authentically poignant, introspective and critical moments.
The “world-building” – in quotations because New Haven, CT and Yale are both real in this world, so I refer mainly to the magical societies and Alex’s role in “keeping them in line” – was just so cool. There were so many little details that I loved reading and honestly, I think I’d be into reading through the entire Lethe handbook, not just the pull-quotes we were given sprinkled throughout. That might make me the biggest nerd ever, but I’m ok with that. As a random side-note, I also love the names of some of out major characters, like Alex being short for Galaxy and Darlington being a combination of Daniel Arlington – super creative.
Last, I will say, as a minor critique that there was a part of the ending/final “antagonist” reveal that left me a little wanting. Our primary “bad guy” was basically the person I suspected from the beginning, because it was the role most likely to be bad. And though there were many red herrings along the way, many of which also ended up involved somehow in the end (not surprising that the cover-ups ran deep, in societies/circles with benefactors whose pockets are as deep as these), the big one wasn’t as much of a surprise as I was hoping. However, there was a secondary paranormal “big bad” that sort of came out of nowhere, in a fascinating way, that definitely made up for it (at least for me). And maybe that was the point all along… Anyways, just beware of that a little and temper expectations about a big reveal; instead focus on enjoying the reading experience in general.
This adult debut from a favorite author of mine definitely lived up to my expectations and, though it wasn’t exactly what I was expecting, it absolutely left me satisfied and gratified. I know I’ve used this word a couple times already, but I just can’t find a better one, so…I really had fun reading this book, genuine fun. I highly recommend it, agree with all the other readers who have loved it, and can’t wait to see what the next part of Alex’s secret, magical, ghost-seeing, hell-traveling, ivy league story entails.
SO MANY quotes I loved:
“If you were going to hell together, murder seemed like a good place to start.”
“We all have spaces we keep blank.”
“You lost the language of ordinary life. And then, without meaning to, you crossed into a country from which you couldn’t return. You lived in a state where the ground always seemed to be slipping from beneath your feet, with no way back to someplace solid.”
“That was what magic did. It revealed the heart of who you’d been before life took away your belief in the possible. It gave back the world all lonely children longed for.”
“…he could never shake the thought that he was seeing only one world when there might be many, that there were lost places, maybe even lost people who might come to life for him if he just squinted hard enough or found the right magic words. Books, with their promises of enchanted doorways and secret places, only made it worse.” (It’s like Bardugo is in my head here!)
“Whether you made a deal with the living or the dead, best not to come up short.”
“Magic had almost killed him, but in the end it had saved him. Just like in stories.”
“There were always excuses for why girls died.”
“…she was homesick for something, maybe for someone, she’d never been.”
“Maybe good things were the same as bad things. Sometimes you just had to let them happen.”