Hell Bent by Leigh Bardugo

That was what Lethe and the societies demanded. Secrecy. Loyalty. Well, fuck them.

In Hell Bent, the long-awaited sequel to the high-octane Ninth House, we are reunited with the danger-prone and dangerous Alex Stern. Still recovering from her several near-death experiences, and attempting to keep up with her coursework and maintain the facade of being a regular(ish) student, Alex is determined to rescue Darlington from hell. Of course, opening a door to the underworld is no easy feat and it very much goes against protocol. After a botched attempt risks exposing their plans to the Board, Alex and Dawes enlist the help of some willing and not-so-willing allies. Whereas Ninth House is propelled by a murder mystery, by Alex’s own mysterious past and unreliability, and by Darlington’s disappearance, the storyline in Hell Bent feels more like a quest of sorts, as Alex and Dawes have to sift through ancient texts and old journal entries to try to locate an artefact that may help them in their attempts to reach hell. Alex also has to deal with some unfinished business from her past, as she once finds herself tangled in some shady business and comes across a new foe that may just be out of her league. Additionally, the deaths of two faculty members also force Alex to question how and if it is connected to their quest to rescue Darlington. Whereas the societies played a large role in Ninth House, here the focus remains on Alex and Dawes’ efforts to reach and rescue Darlington. They are soon forced to the realization that the Darlington they will find is no longer the gentleman that they knew.

Alex is as always a messy and compelling character who often careens about danger. She is also tenacious, a survivor, and she will stop and do nothing to get Darlington back, not only because of guilt but because she genuinely misses him. Throughout the course of the novel, which, unlike Ninth House, takes place over a relatively short amount of time, we see her trying her hardest to do better, for others, and for herself. It was lovely to see her partnership with Dawes solidify into an unlikely friendship, and I also found myself liking her quarrelsome dynamic with Turner not exactly smooth out but becoming something resembling acceptance, respect even.

While Leigh Bardugo continues her critique of academia and patriarchal power structures, in Hell Bent we are mostly confronted with actual demons, who seem to be very much embodiments of vice. Sure, we are reminded of how unjust the power wielded by the secret societies, and of how their access to magic was often used to maintain the status quo and wielded against marginalized communities. Lethe’s latest protector did feel a bit heavy-handed, in how openly misogynistic and regressive he was. What we learn about him also struck me as slightly clichéd and given the lack of confirmed lgbtq+ characters a bit of a letdown. Still, I appreciated Bardugo’s commentary, on wealth, on the power of knowledge, and on privilege, as well as her nuanced yet unflinching portrayal of trauma.

Alex’s voice is utterly compelling. She is by no means an easy character to like or root for but, like and root for her I did. Yes, she’s full of grit and seems unrelentingly resourceful, but we once again see her more vulnerable side. From her confused feelings and yearning for Darlington, to the affection she feels for Dawes and Mercy. Her grief, over Hellie, over the kind of life she could have had if she had never seen the Grays, haunt her even as she tries to forge a future that resembles normalcy. I do wish that Alex stopped blaming herself for everything, as she is often doing her fucking best for the people she cares about.
The setting was edgy and atmospheric, once again combining urban fantasy, Gothic, and academia aesthetics. Magic in these pages is often ugly, which is something refreshing and honestly subversive. So I was a bit disappointed by certain aspects of Alex’s quest. They seemed a bit vanilla, and, while the narrative does seem self-aware of this, it still gave me HP vibes (let’s just say it has to do with the gangs’ ‘powers’).

Overall this was a gripping read. The storyline maintains a good balance between character and plot development. There are moments of levity and humor that counterpoint scenes that are darker, and more intense. Bardugo’s banter is entertaining, witty, and really solidifies the developing and shifting dynamics between Alex and other characters. The world-building is as enticing as it was in Ninth House and Darlington’s faith, which hangs in the balance, will undoubtedly keep readers turning pages. The chemistry between Darlington and Alex is at an all-time high and scenes exploring their attraction and kinship were gold. While the first half is more of a slow burn after the halfway mark things really take off and shit hits the fan as Alex is against several adversaries.
Despite not being driven by mystery as Ninth House was, Hell Bent is certainly a suspenseful read as Alex and Dawes’ mission to save Darlington is constantly under threat. First of all, they have to carry it out in secret, they have to figure out how they will get to him, and eventually, they also have to confront their darkest moments.
After that ending, and having grown very fond of Alex and the rest of her crew, I can’t wait to read the next book in this series.

My rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

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