Review: Hell Bent
Updated: Apr 3
3/5 stars (reluctantly)
Hell Bent, by Leigh Bardugo (2023)
A few years ago I read the first book in this series, Ninth House, and reviewed it here. Hell Bent is very much a sequel and won't make sense without having read the first book, so if you haven't read that yet - stop here! And go read it, cuz it's fun.
Now on to Hell Bent, which will contain Ninth House spoilers...
Not as gripping as the first... and I hate the cover. That's my one sentence review. I did enjoy it, just with reservations. Bardugo knows how to tell a good story and write good characters - I know this from Ninth House and from her Grisha series. But it all got very muddled in this one.
Last we saw Darlington (Virgil) he was being eaten by some kind of hell beast, swallowed whole and yanked into the underworld. Now, Alex Stern (Dante/Virgil) and Pamela Dawes (Oculus) are on the other side of Ninth House's ordeals, having solved Tara's murder, and uncovered Sandow's dirty, underhanded dealings, which included creating the hell-mouth that ate Darlington. They believe Darlington is still reachable - not dead, but turned into a demon - and they're planning a prison break to hell to steal back his soul. The Lethe board refuses to believe/admit that Darlington can be saved, and have forbidden Alex and Dawes from attempting it. So, they have to look elsewhere for help - crabby but reliable Detective Turner (Centurion), hapless former Yale society man Tripp Helmuth, and Alex's roommate Mercy, uninvolved in the magical side of things at Yale until Alex shares it with her. Hell Bent follows their journey to hell and back (a few times), and introduces a bunch of new demons they have to find a way to vanquish.
In Ninth House, Bardugo created a complicated and rich magical history for Lethe, the Yale societies, and New Haven itself. It's a lot to digest but once you're in it, it all makes sense. The world-building is top notch. And then in Hell Bent we have to do it all over again. It's like none of the reader's hard work pays off. Not that all the new magic, new monsters, and new ways to fight them are bad, but everything from the first book is basically nonexistent now. The dark and mysterious academia vibes are gone, and the Yale societies and Grays make only cursory appearances. The characters are still fun to follow around, but the wealth of new information and... what to call it... the "RE-world building," I guess... comes at the expense of character depth. They're tinny and hollow now, because they aren't given a chance to experience their emotions before being thrown into another perilous, chaotic situation with a bunch of new magical claptrap. I would have preferred a simpler story with more continuity from the previous book, and a healthy dose of characters-actually-existing-in-the-real-world. Feel your feelings! Interact with each other, not just with demons! Explore the consequences of Hell's influence on the world of Lethe, Yale, and New Haven!
I'm still giving this 3 stars because I guess I just I don't have the heart to give it 2. Because I still love the characters and their relationships to each other, and I still want to know what happens next (it's definitely wide open for another book). That said, I know I will forget everything by the time a third book comes out (I always do), and I'm not interested in re-reading Hell Bent. Guess I'll have to do an internet search for a quick CliffsNotes kind thing.
UP NEXT: Deaf Republic, by Ilya Kaminsky