Anatomy of a Book Opening: Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo

A good novel will hook its reader from the first page. A great novel will lay out the themes and central conflict(s) within the first chapter. Here, I take a look at some of my favourite books, explaining why I believe their openings work so well.

Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo is a one of my favourite fantasy books, and easily my favourite dark academia novel. Readers are fascinated with the hidden, magical Yale campus Bardugo creates; though the novel’s adult themes (Ninth House features drug addiction, rape, abusive relationships and a system that protects the privileged) are tough to wade through. The novel’s sparkling, dark and gritty tone is established from the get-go.

The Opening Line

By the time Alex managed to get the blood out of her good wool coat, it was too warm to wear it.

Ninth House, page 1

Gentleman, you had my curiosity, but now you have my attention.

One sentence in, and Bardugo has already knocked it out of the park. Not only is this a memorable first line, it sets up the tone of the book perfectly. This is going to be a dark, cynical story brimming with violence. Alex may have saved her coat, but she’s too late to benefit from it.

Time and Place

The secret rooms above the shop were affectionately known as the Hutch by Lethe members, and the commercial space beneath them had been, at varying times, a shoe store, a wilderness outfitter, and a twenty-four-hour Wawa mini-mart with its own Taco Bell counter.

Ninth House, page 1

As a reader, as I leaf through the first few pages of a new book, I should be curious…but never confused. Midway down the first page I have no idea who Alex is (beside suspecting she’s the protagonist), why she’s got blood on her coat, or what exactly she’s going. But I’m no not confused by the setting: by choosing to include these unnecessary details about the shops in the building, I can deduce we’re in the USA (Wawa – specific to the North-east coast – and Taco Bell). The use of modern brand names tell me the story is set in modern times, in an America that resembles ‘the real world.’

Introducing the Magic System

The Lethe diaries from those years were filled with complaints about the stink of refried beans and grilled onions seeping up through the floor – until 1995, when someone had enchanted the Hutch and the back staircase that led to the alley so that they smelled always of fabric softener and clove.

Ninth House, page 1

I suspect it’s a very deliberate artistic choice on the part of Bardugo to bring in the existence of magic after the establishing the violent, dark tone and the contemporary American setting. I love the magic in Ninth House, but it’s always deployed in the service of the novel’s main themes.

With the first mention of magic, we’re given a taste of what those themes are. Here, magical is used for a trivial purpose – improving the smell of the Hutch. Magic is not being used to affect social change, or fight evil – instead it’s used to make someone’s life more convenient. The (mis)use of magic to uphold privilege is a big part of Ninth House, and something Bardugo will return to repeatedly.

The other thing to note is we don’t learn much about the magic system at this point, only that there is one. I don’t know how the magic works, what it’s limitations are, or how many people know about magic and/or can wield it.


No one came to check on her. There was no one left.

Ninth House, page 2

The wound was getting infected. She felt some kind of concern, her mind nudging her towards self-preservation, but the idea of picking up the phone…was overwhelming.

Ninth House, page 4

The Prologue establishes Alex is stranded in the Hutch, a kind of hidden emergency shelter, in the aftermath of an incident that left her injured and isolated. She reflects on her outsider status and her lack of social support. While she recognises she should return to the outside world to seek medical attention, she decides against doing so. To the reader there doesn’t seem to be an external threat waiting for Alex outside the Hutch, it’s just that she doesn’t want to leave.

Ninth House is a book about recovering from trauma. As we’ll learn, Alex has a lot of trauma to unpack that stems from her childhood onwards, but the violent attack alluded to in the Prologue is that trauma in miniature. In the Prologue, Alex believes that no one cares about her. She knows intellectually that she should venture out into the world and confront/address her injuries, but doing so feels impossible.

After the Prologue, we’re going to see Alex face the same dilemmas. Is there anyone she can trust? Is Alex really as isolated as she believes? How can she confront her traumas? How has trauma affected her self-preservation instincts? How does her trauma help or hinder her? It’s already clear in these first few pages that this is a dark, messy story, so Alex’s journey is likely to be dark and messy. Like her bloodied coat, attempts to fix herself might come too late.

The Authorial Flex

Even the big metal sculpture that she now knew was by Alexander Calder reminded her of a giant lava lamp in negative.

“It’s Calder,” she murmured beneath her breath. That was the way people here talked about art. Nothing was by anyone. The sculpture is Calder. The painting is Rothko. The house is Neutra.

Ninth House, page 7

An author shouldn’t overwhelm the reader with similes, metaphors and linguistic flourishes within the first few pages, but (with Look Inside previews of e-books now a huge factor swaying readers’ decision to buy or ignore) there should be something good near the start of the book to convince the reader that the writer can deliver memorable prose and ideas.

With these lines at the start of chapter 1, the reader gets an insight into how Alex (and Bardugo) sees the world. By page 7 we know the story is set at Yale, an Ivy League university, and that Alex is an outsider thanks to her background and trauma. This small detail about how the privileged students around Alex talk about art is brilliant – it’s unexpected and original (if you wanted to illustrate privilege and disconnect in a single example, what first springs to mind?), but rings true. Since Bardugo was educated at Yale, I suspect this snippet comes from her own experiences.


While some readers found Ninth House’s darkness difficult to get through, Bardugo sets up reader’s expectations from the first page, and hooks us with a small mystery.

Published by standrewslynx

International Chemist and Adventurer.

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