Pages Menu
Abbey's Bookshop
Plain engish Foundation
Categories Menu

Posted on 23 Feb 2023 in Fiction |

LEIGH BARDUGO Hell Bent. Reviewed by Amelia Dudley

Tags: / / / / / / /

Leigh Bardugo’s Alex Stern continues her adventures among Yale’s elite societies, picking up where Ninth House left off.

‘… This is what your magic is for, isn’t it? This is what it does. Props up the people in power, lets the people with everything take a little more?’

Leigh Bardugo takes us back to her magical and sinister version of Yale University in this sequel to Ninth House. What if we lived in a world where even half of the conspiracy theories about Yale’s secret societies might be true? Bardugo answers that question with her trademark clever twists, sense of humour and engaging, three-dimensional characters. This series is much darker and heavier than her wonderful YA Grishaverse novels and definitely for the adult market. The first book has a positive review from horror master Stephen King on the cover for a reason. It is also the kind of series that definitely needs to be read in order, as the sequel continues to follow the same main character.

In Ninth House, Alex Stern, the sole survivor of a disturbing, unsolved multiple homicide, was recruited into the secret society Lethe for her ability to see ghosts. Granted a scholarship, her disadvantaged background made it a struggle to fit in and keep up at Yale. As a member of Lethe she needed to learn everything she could about magic as quickly as possible in order to keep the other societies in check and make the most of her unexpected chance at a new life. When another disadvantaged girl wound up dead in mysterious circumstances and everyone simply wanted to pin her murder on the boyfriend, Alex couldn’t shake the feeling that the other societies were involved. What she found was worse than she ever could have imagined.

In Hell Bent, Alex takes on a new role as Lethe’s ’Virgil’, its senior inspector. But without a mentor to guide her, she feels like a fraud. Forbidden to rescue a friend she believes is trapped in Hell, Alex does what Alex does best and tries to do it anyway. However, when faculty members start being killed off and trouble finds Alex from her buried past, she has to wonder whether she really wants to succeed. Maybe some doors are not meant to be opened.

As in the first book, the story is told across multiple timelines, with everything coming together at the end. The sequel is slightly less complicated in this regard than Ninth House, but the plot is no less engaging for it. Putting the pieces together is just as satisfying.

This series is full of Alex’s refreshing cynicism and world-weary wisdom. As ever, it is a joy to watch her manipulate other characters who make the mistake of believing her to be stupid or shallow:

‘I think our best bet is to just let him believe we’re dim and incompetent.’

Dawes folded her arms. ‘Do you know how hard I’ve had to work to be taken seriously? To have my dissertation taken seriously? Playing dumb doesn’t just hurt us, it hurts every woman he comes into contact with. It —’

‘Dawes, I know. But it’s also really good cover. So let’s just dance for him until we figure this out, and then I will happily stand aside while you crush his ego with your dazzling intellect, okay?’

Dawes considered. ‘Okay.’

Bardugo also shows Alex’s fallibility, so there’s the occasional failed attempt to steer someone to her will. And I was overjoyed to discover that an author had actually thought about how impractical it would be to slice one’s palms for ritualistic bloodletting purposes when such cuts would take a long time to heal and wouldn’t have to be all that deep to risk long-term damage.

Examples of institutional racism and sexism are worked into the story without feeling forced. A brief section is told from the point of view of a Black detective, and the details of the sorts of behaviour he has had to tolerate from his white colleagues are as believable as they are concerning.

So much thought has clearly gone into these books. It was fun seeing the different ways  Bardugo has dreamed up to use magic to help maintain the status quo, for example:

‘There’s the Doom Sparrow … If you release it into a room, it sows discord and creates a general sense of malaise. It was used to disrupt meetings of union organizers in the seventies.’

This is a fantastic sequel that’s very easy to binge read. Alex is a compelling main character for a lot of reasons but particularly because she knows herself so well. The ending is satisfying and could be left there, but I suspect there’s more in store for Alex Stern in the future.

Leigh Bardugo Hell Bent Orion 2023 PB 496pp RRP $32.99

Amelia Dudley has degrees in plant biology and currently works as a tutor.

You can buy Hell Bent from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW or you can buy it from Booktopia.

You can also check if it is available from Newtown Library.

If you’d like to help keep the Newtown Review of Books a free and independent site for book reviews, please consider making a donation. Your support is greatly appreciated.