Book Review: Hell Bent by Leigh Bardugo

Find a gateway to the underworld. Steal a soul out of hell. A simple plan, except people who make this particular journey rarely come back. But Galaxy “Alex” Stern is determined to break Darlington out of purgatory―even if it costs her a future at Lethe and at Yale.

Forbidden from attempting a rescue, Alex and Dawes can’t call on the Ninth House for help, so they assemble a team of dubious allies to save the gentleman of Lethe. Together, they will have to navigate a maze of arcane texts and bizarre artifacts to uncover the societies’ most closely guarded secrets, and break every rule doing it. But when faculty members begin to die off, Alex knows these aren’t just accidents. Something deadly is at work in New Haven, and if she is going to survive, she’ll have to reckon with the monsters of her past and a darkness built into the university’s very walls.

Thick with history and packed with Bardugo’s signature twists, Hell Bent brings to life an intricate world full of magic, violence, and all too real monsters.

Read my review of the first Alex Stern novel, Ninth House, here.

The hotly awaited sequel…

I have genuinely been anticipating Hell Bent since I read Ninth House in 2021 (which was me being late to the party, yes), and regularly my thoughts return to it. Ninth House was a fascinating, and in my opinion unique approach to the NA realm. While college aged characters and college settings are hardly new, Ninth House really set a benchmark for dark academia works–an aesthetic and genre combination that has really taken off in the past few years thanks to social media accounts focused on the aesthetic.

To give a working definition of dark academia: the dark academia style and genre combine aspects of education, liberal arts, and classical training in a variety of subjects to create a semi-gothic aesthetic. Essential to the dark academia style are books, old architecture, and a sort of “old soul” aesthetic. There are aspects of “old money” in the type of clothing, wine, and architectural aesthetics preferred in dark academia but there is also something of the grittier gothic to it, with some dark academia aesthetic accounts focusing more on the bloody and monstrous–veering into an analysis of the “other” in classic literature and mythology.

What does this have to do with Ninth House and Hell Bent? Alex Stern embodies the typical “other” by attending Yale University, where she would otherwise have never been accepted nor been financially capable of attending. Alex is brought to Yale by the Lethe House, one of nine secret societies on Yale’s campus that are run and populated by influential people and their children. The houses dabble in real magic, and so Alex’s ability to see grays (or ghosts) is incredibly rare and valuable to Lethe, who monitors the magical activities of the other eight houses. Ninth House describes Alex’s struggles to adjust after her mentor and friend, Darlington, goes missing following a series of especially unusual events. At the end of her journey, Alex and the Oculus of Lethe, Dawes, discover that Darlington was condemned to hell by a faculty member of Yale as part of a mixed up plot. Hell Bent picks up with Dawes and Alex’s many efforts to rescue Darlington.

The Good

The first thing I want to praise about Hell Bent is how Leigh Bardugo reoriented the characters and the reader in the world of Yale. Some bloggers and readers did re-read Ninth House before the release of Hell Bent, and that was probably a smart idea. I, personally, did not have the time to do so and there was definitely a bit of thinking that I had to do during the first few chapters to remember all of the details of Ninth House. It can be a difficult line to walk between giving too much exposition of the last book and making sure that readers know what’s important to remember, so I appreciate that Bardugo did much of the Ninth House exposition at the same time as explaining what Alex and Dawes have been up to since we last saw them. Hell Bent starts with a significant time jump of a few months, so not only does Alex have to fill us in on what happened during that period, but Alex also has to recall what is and isn’t important about the events of the first novel. Doing the exposition this way kept it a lot more exciting and engaging, though I did feel like I was missing a few details here or there by not having Ninth House fresh in my memory.

As with Ninth House, I thoroughly enjoyed the writing style, descriptions, and characters in this story. Alex Stern is a great protagonist to read from–she’s funny, realistic, down to earth, and also gritty in a way that is kind of hard to find these days. The plot was also intriguing, with the turns of mystery and magic that Alex and Dawes had to unravel. I enjoyed how so many things were connected–such as the vampire Alex encounters and Michelle, the advisor to Lethe who holds down the fort until the new praetor is established. I liked the way the descent to hell was done, as well as all of the little descriptions that demonstrate Lethe has been pulling a lot more strings than anybody really thought.

The Okay

I’m not sure I really cared all that much about the thread with Alex’s past in LA. While I see where the connection was made, and how it brought additional players into the story subtly, I could have done without the whole “Alex being forced to play enforcer for a drug dealer” vibe. It didn’t seem like something she would let herself be dragged back into, to be honest. This wasn’t the only moment that took me out the narrative and Alex’s character, either. The lunch she has with Michael also felt a little odd to me and it felt like it didn’t really do anything for the plot for the big reveal for Michael’s character later. It looks like Bardugo is planning on writing one more book, so if this was set up for a character development in the third installment then I am interested in seeing how it goes–if it’s a moment that gets casually thrown away, then I’m not sure it was necessary at all.

The Bad

There was nothing that I particularly disliked about Hell Bent. It had a lot of the same elements of Ninth House that I really enjoyed and got the chance to expand on them. I suppose the only thing this series has done that’s not been my favorite is how nebulous it is? Leigh Bardugo has said in a Q&A that there’ll be a third book–but originally the series was conceived with the idea of being 12 books long, then later 5. I wish there was more clear information about how long this will actually be, as well as when the next book might come out.

Final Thoughts

Bardugo’s writing in this series is some of my favorite in contemporary fiction. I love that the setting takes a very dark mood and transforms a somewhat familiar location by giving it incredible detail and mystery. The dark academia vibes are, as always, fantastic and enjoyable (if you like that sort of thing) and I adore how gritty and bloody and messy things get. Alex is such a grounding character, and I enjoyed the developments in her friendships with Mercy and Dawes in this installment. Her relationship with Darlington was tense and delicious, and though I wish there had been more of it on the page I enjoyed every moment that we did get. I also really enjoy this subversion of the “special one” idea, where Alex is something special and many around her recognize it, but because of her own attitude and choices she puts them off quickly. Just how she prefers it. Alex is the perfect combination of cognizant to be grateful and bitterly angry. Also, everything about the Gauntlet from its conception, discovery, setup, and the way it plays out in the story was fascinating and absorbing. This book was another slam dunk for me after Ninth House.


By Catherine

I'm a lover of books, coffee, wine, and bees. Happy to join the ranks of book bloggers everywhere!

5 replies on “Book Review: Hell Bent by Leigh Bardugo”

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