“Darlington liked to say that dealing with ghosts was like riding the subway: Do not make eye contact. Do not smile. Do not engage. Otherwise, you never know what might follow you home.”
Alex Stern has always been able to see ghosts. This ability has driven her to resort to drugs, abusive relationships, and even become implicated in a homicide by the age of twenty. However, when she is offered a full ride to Yale University in return for her commitment to its secret occult societies, Alex accepts in hopes for a fresh start.
This book explores Alex’s dark past as she attempts to start a new life at Yale, but when a murder mystery strikes on campus, she begins uncovering some truths.
***Trigger Warnings: Rape, Assault, Drug abuse, Murder, Gore
***Genres: Adult, Crime, Paranormal, Contemporary, Psychological
This book sure doesn’t pull its punches.
There have been early complaints that this novel is too dark and distressing, but as I expected it to be so considering its genre, I was not too bothered by the triggering contents of this book. That said, I did not expect this book to be a full-on thriller crime novel, and that both was a boon and hindrance in my enjoyment of it.
Because to start, I generally am not fan of adult crime novels, and yet this book was a fresh experience for me regardless as I enjoyed being strung along in a murder mystery. The plot twists regarding the culprit are a tad predictable in my opinion, but that did not take away from the fun of stacking the evidence and analyzing them as I went.
Furthermore, Alex is a compelling protagonist. She harbors a troubled past due to her ability to see ghosts, yet she is able to compartmentalize and move on in hopes for a better life. I particularly appreciated her bond with other female characters, her quick wit and survival instincts, as well as her sense of humor: Alex is hardcore, but she does know when to quip and soften her temper in order to build relationships with others.
But ultimately, what won me over was the neat reiteration of the book’s themes in its climax. At times, the morals may feel ham-fisted, yet there are characters revealed later to have taken advantage of Alex’s desperation, and this ties in nicely to the message that those who come from a place of privilege often hold their power over others and abuse the fact that people without power are left unheard when in need of help.
In that, this book definitely has something to say! However, I do have a few nitpicks, one being the plot. It flips nicely between the past and present, but the first half of this story lacks focus as it diverts attention away from Alex and onto the POV of a certain male character. He is a compelling voice, but in retrospect feels like unnecessary baggage as he becomes irrelevant setup for the sequel and contributes rather little to the finale.
In a similar vein, this book has a slightly disorienting start. It is set at Yale, yet the crime and paranormal elements dominate to a point where it doesn’t feel like college anymore. Not to mention, the lack of normality to Alex’s life made the plot feel imbalanced as the book somewhat exposition-dumps you into the middle of her occult duties when it might’ve been better served to have eased us into her classes and social life first.
That said, this book grew on me the more I read it! I cannot totally gush about it as the exposition could’ve been snappier with less brooding and more breathing room for action, dialogue, and excitement, but the plot becomes increasingly compelling once you work out where it’s going, and I inhale-read the latter half in one go.
Recommended? Well, why not?
Again, I’m not a reliable critic as I’m not a fan of this genre (and thus have no gauge), but for what it’s worth, I enjoyed this book well enough. There are info-dumps at the start and the brooding is a tad reminiscent of the Grisha trilogy, but the characters have the personality and motives to make you feel for them, and that’s all I really needed.
So if you’re into psychological, paranormal, thrillers, or crime, this book may be for you! But do be warned, I would not be so quick to pick up this book just because you’re a fan of Leigh Bardugo: save for her smart prose and attention to detail, it has little in common with her earlier works (less coddling of its audience, more triggers), so know going in that this book will feel like it was written by someone else. For ages 17 and up!
Final thoughts: Grim yet hopeful
This is Leigh Bardugo’s foray from fantasy YA into contemporary adult, and I feel that contributed to a slight over-fantasization of a modern college setting when I would have preferred to have been eased into Alex’s normal life first (her classes, her bonding with peers), just to make the idea of a paranormal society at Yale feel more realistic.
That said, there’s a running theme about privilege that deeply parallels Alex’s own struggles, and I found its intention meaningful and thought-provoking. With an even bolder emphasis on plot next time, this series has potential to be great.
My rating: 3.5/5 frogs (3 personally, 4 technically)
***Heads up, I didn’t give this book a full 4 stars since this genre isn’t my cup of tea, and so I came out neutral despite appreciating its themes (a.k.a. the main reason why I pushed my rating from 3 to 4 stars). More of Alex’s college life would’ve made the drudgery and brooding more palatable, but I can’t take that as a negative as it’s totally subjective.
***On a final note, I’ve seen some people stirring up a fuss because this book has a brief scene where a ghost tries to rape Alex (and damn near succeeds) while she’s in middle school. Horrifying, yes, but as I don’t believe in policing content (and I don’t feel the scene was too gratuitous considering the book’s context), I got past it. Still, heads up.