Hell Bent – by Leigh Bardugo

Finally, time to talk about Hell Bent! It’s been more than a month since I’ve read it, actually – right after finishing Ninth House I couldn’t exactly restrain myself – but I was waiting for some certain book club discussion before making my review public. But now, the fated day has come.

Title: Hell Bent

Author: Leigh Bardugo

Original Publisher: Flatiron Books

Publication Date: 10 January 2023

Genre: Urban Fantasy – Dark Academia

Pages: 496

Standalone or Series: Alex Stern #2

Synopsis: After surviving the supernatural and academic ordeals of Ninth House, Alex Stern is now facing a truly monumental task: that is to say, finding a way to retrieve Darlington’s soul from the Underworld. When the high echelons of House Lethe prove themselves as unsupportive as expected, she gathers up a team of trusted friends and sketchy new allies to help her in her desperate rescue mission, which will involve the usual mixture of arcane arts and reckless self-endangerment.

Analysis: Not unlike Ninth House, Hell Bent is written in third person limited; however, while the first book featured a balanced blend of Alex’s and Darlington’s specular perspectives, here, for obvious reason, the proportions are heavily skewed towards Alex’s end. This is just one of the factors that make Hell Bent a less brainy, more straighforward narration than its previous volume. The plot isn’t entirely linear, as anticipations and flashbacks are still used to ramp up tension, however the storytelling is overall more traditional, more focused on delivering a satisfying story that on messing with our heads. The prose is as usual very approachable, and at the same time evocative of an appropriately mysterious and brooding atmosphere (with the occasional dive in the Trashy Trench – yes, for the life of mine I can’t unsee that one character’s glowing erection).

Where Ninth House had taken all its time to build its setting, Hell Bent is, well, hell-bent on moving the story forwards as much as possible, which makes for a very engaging and entertaining read, that however misses out on some of its potential depth. Possibly the main appeal of Ninth House was the description of its cliques and lobbies, its portrayal of magical powers as a close metaphor for real-world privilege. Here, on the other hand, the houses and their schemes are out of focus more often than not, and while there is still some poignant image (I am thinking about the magical map, and the “crimes” it was meant to track down), its political message takes a considerable step back in comparison to its strictly fantasy component.

Another main theme that has been sacrificed on the altar of simplicity and crowd-pleasing is the relationship between Alex and Darlington: that had started out as a magnificently uneasy interaction between a begrudging mentor and a pupil way out of her depth, and that had so much potential for a nuanced development, as the two had started opening up to each other and fining a common ground despire their massive differences; here, however, the two are hastily written into a romantic relationship – not so much because it made sense, not even as a honest-to-goodness case of trauma bonding, but because of a magical liaison literally forged in hell; I deeply despise magical plot devices as a replacement for personal and interpersonal growth, but they seem to be popular so here we go again.

By far the most fascinating aspect of the novel is the description of forbidden and fogotten rituals, where arcane lore is once again intertwined with Yale’s history and architecture. Well, I am talking about the first trip to hell, at least – you know, the one that feels appropriately arduous and extreme; later, due to plot requirements, our characters are casually going to and fro the underworld, in a way that seriously undermine the gravitas of such a journey.

Other than that, the novel includes a number of additional plotlines that may come across as more or less superfluous or underdeveloped – and I am thinking about the entire gangster story arc, and most egregiously about the murder mystery, that may seem intriguing at first, but ends up being a giganting and unnecessary red herring.

Conclusion: Ok, it looks like I am trashing this book, while in fact I had a lot of fun reading it and I am looking forwards for the next installment of the series. Truth be told, I think that Hell Bent is by all means an interesting and very entertaining novel, I just wish it had been polished the way it would have deserved.

Content Warning: Death – Violence – Murder – Animal Death – Drug Abuse – Suicide Attempt – Sexual Assault

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