Leigh Bardugo broke spectacularly out of Young Adult fantasy mode with her dark 2019 release Ninth House, easily one of the best fantasy releases of that year. Ninth House told the story of Galaxy ‘Alex’ Stern, a woman with a dark past and an eldritch power, who finds herself with a scholarship to Yale. Before long, Alex is trying to solve a series of murders and learning the ins and outs of the various magic student fraternities. That book ended on a cliffhanger – Alex’s mentor Darlington had been literally sent to hell and she is determined to find a way to get him back.
There are two ways to manage a cliffhanger. One is to resolve it quickly and move on. And the other is to make it the driver of the next series of events. Bardugo takes the second course, making Alex’s mission and its unforeseen consequences the centrepiece of this novel. This makes Hell Bent a different, and much more linear narrative than the slow reveals of Ninth House. While there are some major revelations relating to magic and how it works, it unfortunately does not delve much further into the social and political worlds of the eight magic Houses.
Bardugo keeps the pressure high pretty much from the first page. Alex is not only trying to find a way to rescue someone from hell but she also needs to keep her place at Yale, is asked to help investigate a series of strange murders and is being blackmailed by her former drug dealer back in LA. Nothing is easy in Alex’s world and that every use of magic has its own consequences.
Hell Bent is also more of a found family narrative than its predecessor, something Bardugo is known for in her other works. Alex needs to put together a coalition of friends and colleagues to work the magic that she thinks she needs. As always, each of the people she collects comes with a troubled backstory but also a particular range of skills that she needs. And while Stern tests these connections by her crash or crash through nature she manages to make her little gang work for her.
Once again, the buildings and landscape of New Haven and Yale itself are integral to the plot. In her Acknowledgements, Bardugo states that all of the weird inscriptions and pieces of decoration, some of which play key roles in the plot are real. So while this is an alternate world, it is one that feels incredibly real and possible.
It was a long wait between Ninth House and Hell Bent which makes getting into this book and remembering who everyone is and where they fit a bit of a challenge. But once readers are back in the swing, Bardugo’s narrative grips tight and does not let go. And this is the second book in what is likely to be a trilogy. So there are plenty of ways Bardugo can bring together the still intriguing set up in Ninth House and the encroaching magic issues from Hell Bent into a fitting finale.