Hell Bent by Leigh Bardugo
When 2023’s Hell Bent, by Leigh Bardugo, opens, a demon has trapped Galaxy Stern, who goes by Alex, in the basement of the Black Elm house, along with two ghosts. Upstairs, her friend and mentor, Darlington, who was sucked into a hell dimension in Ninth House, Book One of the ALEX STERN series, waits in demon form. It’s safe to say things aren’t going well.
The second book brings us back to dark Yale and the home of the various secret societies, all of whom use magic. Alex, together with Pam Dawes, the archivist or “Oculus” of Lethe House, and Detective Turner, a New Haven cop who is in on the magic deal and serves as “Centurion,” are determined to restore Darlington to this realm. As you’d expect, all forces are arrayed against them; demonic, mundane and academic. The Praetor and other leaders at Yale want no more trouble, no more magical disruption, and have declared Darlington dead. Alex’s place as a scholarship student hangs by a thread. More seriously, a crime lord back in her mother’s hometown of LA is blackmailing her to act as an enforcer in New Haven, bringing her into the sights of yet another monster.
There was quite a bit of dark humor in Ninth House, especially around academia, privilege and magic. I missed that quality here. While there is lots of planning, scrambling, improvising, facing setbacks and planning again, the middle of the book felt slow, and my feeling was that Alex whines through a lot of it. She isn’t whining; she is remembering the pit of her terrible life and fearing that’s what she’ll go back to. I think technically she’s brooding—it felt like whining. Fortunately, in the final third of the book everyone is too busy fighting demons and returning to a hell dimension for Alex to either brood or whine. The group’s reluctant admission of a new member is a plus, and I was glad to see Alex’s savvy mundane roommate Mercy playing a part in the tale.
Of course there is a lot to love here; exquisite descriptions of Yale, the histories, actual and secret; the quotations, riddles and puzzles. I loved the magic. At least one ally-turned-adversary was a surprise, and I love the two buildings, Il Bastone and Black Elm, who bring their own mysteries and spirit to the tale.
Like Ninth House, Hell Bent is marketed as an adult urban fantasy, deals with dark, complex themes and uses rougher language. The characters would be right at home in the Grisha world, complete with the brooding. This was not a feature for me, but it didn’t derail the story completely, and I think many readers will applaud the knife’s edge on which Alex walks. If you enjoyed Ninth House, you’ll like Hell Bent.
I pretty much agree with everything you say in this review, including your rating. The biting satire of the first book was not evident in this one, which was more action focused. I didn’t assume at the end of Ninth House that there would necessarily be a sequel, but this one does seem to strongly signal that at least one more novel about these characters will be coming.
Boy, I really missed the satire.