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Hell Bent by Leigh Bardugo (book review)

Updated: Mar 19, 2023

GENRE: Adult Fantasy
LENGTH: 478 pages
PLOT
In the sequel to Ninth House, Alex, Dawes, and Detective Turner band together to find a way to enter hell and save Darlington.
CHARACTERS
In Ninth House, Alex is a morally grey character who is a survivor. She’s willing to fight tooth and nail, cross lines most wouldn’t, and sacrifice almost anything in order to protect herself. The Alex we see in this sequel is a tad softer and more trusting. Don’t misunderstand me, though, she’s still ruthless when it calls for it. I make my love of morally grey characters no secret and Alex is even more interesting to me in this novel than in the first one. She’s not going to be a protagonist that everyone loves, but she’s earned my admiration for her sheer grit.
Pamela Dawes, referred to almost exclusively as Dawes, is still her more anxious, introverted self. Yet for the first time she’s putting herself on the front lines instead of hiding behind her books. Her relationship with Alex continues to develop in this novel. They’re not precisely friends, but they are bonded by their joined experiences.
Detective Turner, often referred to simply as Turner, also sees changes in his relationship with Alex. In the first book, they have a very reluctant alliance. In this sequel, Turner is still gruff but there is this trust and begrudging respect between them.
Mercy, Alex’s roommate, also has a much bigger role in this novel. I liked her in the first book because she gave Alex a slice of normal life to return to, but here I absolutely loved her. She was brave and bold and it felt like a reclaiming of power for her.
Overall, this group is a very ragtag team that in other circumstances would never be together. It’s like a college group project where you don’t get to pick your partners but yet somehow it works. The characters all undergo subtle changes which is, in my opinion, even more difficult to do than creating characters from scratch. All of the fond feelings I had for them from the first book only grew here.

NARRATIVE STYLE/PACING
The novel is written from the third person perspective of Alex. Some complaints I saw about the first book was how it jumped between the present day and the past and people got lost along the away. There are a few switches here in the timeline, but for the most part the sequel is far more linear than the first book.
Like the first book there are excerpts from fictional texts that exist within the novel’s world in between chapters. I am always giddy to see any kind of mixed media in books. When used right, it can really elevate one's reading experience. Like within the first book the excerpts here were always relevant to what was happening in the plot. They offer a little more insight into the behind the scenes of Lethe and how it operates.
I didn’t reread Ninth House before this book because I had previously reread it in late 2021. A good chunk of characters and information returns and is built upon in this book. Depending on how solid your memory is I do think it could be worth the reread, especially if you haven’t read it since it came out in 2019.
The plot could feel a little bloated at times. There was the primarily goal of finding a way into Hell to save Darlington, but there’s also Alex being blackmailed by a drug dealer from her past (Eitan), and murders on Yale campus. I liked all of these plots individually, but I did feel at first that a little too much was crammed into the book. However, when things started to come together I finally saw and understood Bardugo’s vision and could appreciate it fully. I should have known better and trusted her all along!
The novel’s ending is a cliffhanger and opens itself up to a third book. I’m not holding my breath though given it was over three years between the release of Ninth House and Hell Bent and Bardugo seems to be prioritizing her YA projects (which I also love). For now, though, I’m sated.

FINAL THOUGHTS
I know the initial plan for this series was to have it be more serialized with each book tackling a paranormal mystery on Yale campus. I was upset when that plan was abandoned, but after reading Hell Bent I am no longer mourning what we could have had. I don't doubt the original plan would have created a fantastic series, but the direction Bardugo ended up choosing is more up my alley when it comes to fantasy reads anyway (I tend to gravitate towards fantasy books that have these big stories with world ending stakes). This sequel is very dark so keep in mind there are plentiful trigger warnings including discussions of suicide and sexual assault.

FINAL RATING: 5⭐️

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