One of the books that largely slipped under my radar last year (I somehow missed it for my Polygon list the month that it was released) was Leigh Bardugo’s Ninth House, an urban fantasy about magic and secret societies at Yale University.
The book is about a young woman named Galaxy “Alex” Stern, who has a particular ability: she can see ghosts. That ability catches the attention of one of Yale University’s secret societies, Lethe, which plays an important role at the institution: it keeps the other eight magical secret societies in line. They use magic for a bunch of things: predicting the stock market, creating power and wealth, etc, and as one might expect from some college students, they’re not always wielding it responsibly. Alex is thrown into the deep end of upper-class society, and into the realm of this sort of grim magic.
The through-line of this novel is all about that sort of imbalance of power: how does one utilize the enormous power at their disposal responsibly? As one might expect, it’s pressingly relevant in 2019/2020, because Bardugo plays with this along a couple of levels. There’s power at the institutional level, in how the university manages its students and magical talents, while on the student level, Alex contends with entitled students acting poorly. There’s a notable incident in which a student takes illicit video of his encounter with an influenced student, and the fallout of that. Wrapped around that storyline is a mystery about the death of a young woman, and Alex’s efforts to help bring her death to some sort of justice, as well as a couple of other, deep-seated mysteries that pop up along the way — stuff that will shake the university to its foundations.
Bardugo’s take on magic is a really innovative one: there are certainly plenty of “magical academy” novels that have come out since Harry Potter, but her take on power and responsibility pushes Ninth House up above the rest, in that it’s tapping into some of of the problems we face in society today.
This is something that I’ve long held up as one of speculative fiction’s strengths: the ability to recognize and confront issues in society, rather than just spinning them off into whimsical adventures that a premise brings. Sarah Gailey’s 2019 novel Magic for Liars falls into similar territory — and the two complement one another nicely for their pessimistic and realistic takes on how teenagers / college students would utilize magic if they could. The answer? Not well.