It’s been over three years since Ninth House, the first book in bestselling author Leigh Bardugo’s adult dark academia fantasy series based on a scrappy Yale college student with the ability to see the dead hit shelves, so you might be forgiven for wondering if, after so much time has passed, the sequel could possibly live up to the expectations readers undoubtedly had for it. And…I’m here to tell you it absolutely does—and then some.
Hell Bent is everything fans of Bardugo’s Alex Stern series could have asked for: It’s thematically richer, its characters are more complexly rendered, the darkness lurking at the edges of its New England-set world of privilege is more frightening, and its wit more biting. There is laugh-out-loud humor and genuine horror set alongside the sort of moral quandaries and philosophical questions that should theoretically delight any Ivy League student. Because so much of Ninth House was dedicated to Bardugo’s particular brand of plotty worldbuilding, Hell Bent is able to hit the ground running, building on every word of its predecessor’s good work, and catapulting both heroine and readers into a non-stop, tension-filled adventure that takes us from the darkest corner’s of Yale’s history to Hell itself. (More than once!)
The story picks up several months after the conclusion of Ninth House, in which Alex’s mentor Darlington was sent to Hell by a now-dead dean. Named the Virgil of Lethe in his place, Alex is charged with monitoring the use of magic by Yale’s famous secret societies, even as she tries to use her new position to serve multiple masters. Ignoring the commands from within Lethe to drop it, she continues investigating the Ninth House’s past and looking for a way to open a portal to the underworld and bring Darlington home, despite the fact that doing her actions could see her expelled in the best of circumstances (or bringing about Hell on Earth in the worst ones). She’s also struggling to pass her classes (her background as a low-level drug dealer wasn’t exactly Ivy League prep school material), ignore the increasingly loud voices from the Grays (ghosts) that only she can see, and deal with the fact that her former boss, Eitan Harel, has learned of her supernatural abilities and intends to blackmail her into working odd but definitely criminal jobs for him.
As Alex digs into how to access a mysterious pathway known as the Gauntlet, she’s joined by a squad of equally broken misfits, including Pamela Dawes; the research-driven Oculus of Lethe who feels Darlington’s loss the most keenly; Abel Turner, a damaged New Haven cop who’s made some bad choices in his own past; Tripp Helmuth, a third generation Bonesman in over his head; and Mercy Zhao, Alex’s naive roommate who’s excited by the lure of the supernatural. Their interpersonal dynamics are fantastic throughout, as each grapples with what they’re willing to risk—to save Darlington, to find the truth, to protect their town from dark threats.
As a heroine, Alex remains as prickly and difficult as ever—-but although she is often brusque, difficult, and unlikeable, she also boasts a spine of steel, and a determination never to let those she cares about down, no matter what she has to sacrifice in order to do so. As she pushes her compatriots towards increasingly dangerous and, quite frankly, terrible decisions, it’s clear that she’s not asking them to attempt anything she herself isn’t willing to fling herself headlong at first, and the genuine bonds that form between and among her unlikely group of misfit co-conspirators are the best part of the novel.
But, for the first time, we also get glimpses into the heads of the story’s other major characters, exploring what makes them tick and the emotions that drive them, from guilt and sorrow to fear and joy. Dawes, with her constant need to feed everyone to assuage her own feelings, is an instant favorite, but, surprisingly, so is Detective Turner, whose determination to solve an increasingly bizarre string of murders reveals heretofore unseen layers and depth.
Bardugo’s Alex Stern series wrestles with more adult themes and prickly moral questions than her popular Grishaverse fantasy novels, and as such, her characters come in increasingly varied shades of gray. (I mean, one of the major rituals at the center of the novel requires the participation of four murderers to succeed, so make of that what you will.) As a result, Hell Bent never flinches from the darker sides of both magic and human nature—everything in this world or the next has a price, and nothing good can be done without sacrifice. From grisly deaths and bloody spells to freakish supernatural creatures and the all-too-human evil lurking in the dark corners of Yale’s history, the story never allows its readers to forget that every kind of victory comes with its own set of difficult and uncomfortable compromises. Nor does it skimp on confronting the privilege that comes along with the characters’ Yale experience, where rich, connected, predominantly male students and board members are repeatedly allowed to get away with murder.
Much like Ninth House, this book also ends with a fairly substantial cliffhanger, and while this one is less overtly about questions of life or death in terms of who survives the final pages, it does set up a thrilling third (and presumably final) book in the series that feels as though it will leave the worlds of Lethe and New Haven forever changed. There’s nothing about this story that suggests anyone is destined for what might be called a traditional happy ending—but I’m not sure that any of these scrappy survivors would even want one, or know what to do if they got it. Here’s hoping that they just find a way to heal.
Lacy Baugher Milas is the Books Editor at Paste Magazine, but loves nerding out about all sorts of pop culture. You can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.