Review: The Ancient Nine by Ian K. Smith

“Money has an insidious way of making decent human beings behave in a most indecent way.”



St. Martin’s Press | 2018

Filed Under: The Skulls but boring and without Joshua Jackson

Have you ever read a novel and can immediately tell it’s written by a first-time author because they don’t know how to chill the fuck out with descriptive passages and scenes that don’t further a plot?

Yeah. This book suffers from that in abundance.

The heart of the novel is that of Spenser Collins, a young Black man attending Harvard in 1988. After becoming an unlikely candidate to join one of the University’s secret societies, The Delphic, Spenser and his buddy Dalton, stumble upon a fifty-year-old mystery – the disappearance of another young student in the 1920s who was never heard from again after illegally entering the Delphic’s mansion in search of the answer to the question: Is there really a secret society within the secret society called the Ancient Nine who spend their whole lives guarding an invaluable secret?

I mean, part of me was thinking of the movie The Skulls circa 2000. You know, Joshua Jackson and Paul Walker getting into some deadly adventure after joining a secret society that will do anything to protect its secrets, protect its own, its power and its money? But sadly for me, this book hits a decidedly different tone, while maintaining that “boys club” feel and presenting the objectification of women as a good thing.

Spenser sets off to solve the erudite mystery at hand with the help of his rich friend, Dalton. They travel to different parts of the country to ask questions and steal things, rummage through library archives and ancient texts, and even digging up human remains in search of an answer to the question about the Ancient Nine.

I can totally get on board with a mystery that is more brainy and less about dead bodies; that is about looking through books and putting together old clues, instead of something that is a little bit more fast-paced and dangerous.

Readers who are into a more intellectually driven mystery, who like steady streams of research information shoved down their throats, will really enjoy this aspect of the book.


jimmy kimmel emmys 2016 GIF by Emmys

Like I said up at the top – this book suffers from first-time writer syndrome: a need to make sure the reader sees everything as the writer sees it. This results in things like how evenly spaced dishes are on the table, how a garden is situated and the style of leather on a chair and what metal the studs are around the edging. The author goes so far as to add in a map of the area like we’re going to fucking Middle Earth. It’s a university campus!

This book insists too much upon itself, trying too hard to beat a reader over the head with exactly how things look, and focussing less on how they feel. It sacrifices pacing for the sake of description.

Maybe you’re a reader who gravitates toward that kind of writing, I am not. Paint a picture, but don’t fill in every nook and cranny. Let me use my imagination. Because the thing is, no matter how hard a writer tries to tell us exactly how they see things, each reader is going to picture it a different way in the end. So, stop trying so hard to insist everything looks a certain way, and give the reader more room to be fluid in their mind’s eye.

If I tell you Spenser and Dalton are going to eat on the outdoor patio of a retirement home in Miami, and that it’s a retirement home for wealthy people, you are immediately going to have an idea of what that might look like. I can sacrifice the time it takes to explain where a patio is in relation to a garden, in relation to a lake, in relation to a tree and the main building etc, etc.

bored over it GIF

Shit like this drives me crazy. Perhaps I could forgive this writing style if it weren’t for the fact that it didn’t seem like this novel knew what it wanted to be. A romance? A drama? A mystery? Academic research? A contemporary about brotherhood? Contrary to other (not really popular?) opinions, books that try to be too many things usually suffer because of it.

The author is coming at this novel from a personal perspective. He based the main character on himself, on his experience at Harvard, on his experience in a secret society. In the end, the main character even becomes a doctor, as the author is outside of writing fiction.

But, instead of taking all of that knowledge and reimagining it into something fantastical, something thrilling and full of deep mystery that propels the story forward – what we get is kind of a self-masturbatory story that feels like it wants to be an autobiography but just with a little tweaking so the author can imagine himself as a hero. He’s joining a secret society and also falling in love and also solving this mystery and also trying to be a basketball star and also trying to be a doctor and also getting into the boys club.

There were too many things happening. Things that happened in large chunks of pages and took away from the flow of the storyline. It was a romance novel. It was a contemporary about brotherhood. It was a drama. It was an intellectual mystery. It was a religious research paper. It was too much.

The author even included whole pages of library references and news articles and different kinds of research information that as the reader, should be told to me in a clear and concise way instead of making me read it. I’m not here to do the research, I’m here to be told a story.

For me, this novel suffers greatly from bad editing and an overt desire to tell too many stories without sticking to a theme or pulling back on the other elements to create something more subtle and natural. There was a missed opportunity to weave the plot threads together into something that was digestible and didn’t lose steam… and wasn’t so goddamn wordy.

Ugh, omg. So. Many. Unnecessary. Words.

angry adam sandler GIF

Pages and pages of basketball plays, practices, describing movements, describing scenes and events and places and personal histories of inconsequential characters – which added nothing to the overall plot. It felt disjointed, lacking cohesion and a clear direction. It was also jumpy – going from one unnecessary scene back into the main mystery. I found myself wondering why didn’t the plotting just continue with the mystery? What was the point of attending a basketball practice?

Nothing. There was no point. It’s just that the author couldn’t seem to help himself; couldn’t stop injecting everything about himself into this story. Again, I say self-masturbatory.

It’s also disappointing that the author felt it was necessary to create characters that were overtly misogynistic. Sure it’s the 1980s and there’s a “boys club” element to it, but it is possible to write something like that without having naked girls ready to be “used” by the winning team of guys. There are other rewards besides women who don’t seem to have a choice in being viewed as blow-up sex dolls. Or at least, a different way to write it.

Because the impression I get from the writing, and the author, is that the way women were used and treated and spoken about back then wasn’t problematic, then or now. Instead, these kinds of things are looked back on with great affection. “Just like old times,” Spenser says.

In the end, the payoff of the climactic reveal wasn’t interesting enough to make the time it took to get there worth it. It also felt like a letdown. The perceived threats that float throughout the novel, are just that – nothing more than perceived.

This book is all talk, little action. It’s a lot of research reading, and a lot of late-night library runs that are interrupted by irrelevant scenes that should have been cut out.

It seems, overall, that it was clearly written by a male author for a male reader, but also that the author didn’t know exactly what kind of book he wanted to write. The concern with getting the story out overrode the need to get rid of the things that didn’t belong in the plot, which dragged it down.

I would have liked this a million times better if it had focused on being a mystery. If it had found ways to make the threats more substantial and real toward Spenser and Dalton. And if someone had taken an axe to every unnecessary scene that was only included to allow the author to indulge himself.

But, like I’m on the blog tour for this so you should totally buy it, or whatever, if you feel like it’s definitely you’re kind of story. I am not the right audience for this kind of writing.


Spencer Collins thinks his life at Harvard will be all about basketball and pre-med; hard workouts and grinding work in class. The friends he’s made when he hits the storied ivy-clad campus from a very different life in urban Chicago are a happy bonus. But Spencer is about to be introduced to the most mysterious inner sanctum of the inner sanctum: to his surprise, he’s in the running to be “punched” for one of Harvard’s elite final clubs.

The Delphic Club is known as “the Gas” for its crest of three gas-lit flames, and as Spencer is considered for membership, he’s plunged not only into the secret world of male privilege that the Gas represents but also into a century-old club mystery. Because at the heart of the Delphic, secured deep inside its guarded mansion club, is another secret society: a shadowy group of powerful men known as The Ancient Nine.

Who are The Ancient Nine? And why is Spencer—along with his best friend Dalton Winthrop—summoned to the deathbed of Dalton’s uncle just as Spencer is being punched for the club? What does the lore about a missing page from one of Harvard’s most historic books mean? And how does it connect to religion, murder, and to the King James Bible, if not to King James himself?

The Ancient Nine is both a coming-of-age novel and a swiftly plotted story that lets readers into the ultimate of closed worlds with all of its dark historical secrets and unyielding power.

5 thoughts on “Review: The Ancient Nine by Ian K. Smith

  1. This was an amazing review, and I bet, a million times more enjoyable to read than this book. Honestly it sounds like it was a chore, and reading should never feel like that. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry at the literal “pages of research”, what was the author even thinking, in what world is that a remotely enjoyable experience? I usually dislike “boys club” type of stories and books like this do nothing to change my mind.


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