I read and reviewed the first book in the Alex Stern series, Ninth House, last year (AKA 2021, the Year of I Became a Leigh Bardugo Superfan), and I’ve been eagerly awaiting the second book in the series ever since. Hell Bent finally came off of my Libby queue last week, and I pretty much abandoned all other responsibilities (including sleeping..) until I had consumed this new adventure.
Hell Bent follows the same structure as Ninth House, opening with our main character, Alex, in a moment of despair before flashing back to show us how she got there. In this case, Alex walks into the basement of her missing mentor, Darlington, to find two recently deceased “greys” – the lingering spirits that Galaxy “Alex” Stern can both see and hear. Her unique ability to see the dead brought Alex to Yale on a scholarship to be a part of Lethe, the “Ninth House” of the first book, which oversees the clandestine supernatural activities of the other secret societies on Yale’s campus. Without her mentor, Alex has suddenly been thrown to the front lines of these activities. On top of trying to keep the line safely drawn between the occult rituals of the elite secret societies and the citizens of New Haven, Alex has been hard at work trying to find a way to (surreptitiously) break Darlington out of a Hell dimension.
If that sounds like a lot, it is! Bardugo’s writing always has a LOT of plot thrown at you non-stop, and Hell Bent was no exception. In between the main plot of doing the arcane research and assembling a team to break Darlington out of Hell, we also have a run-in with a drug lord, try to solve a series of murders, find out that vampires exist, and exorcize both physical and (some of the) emotional demons that seem to hound Alex at every turn.
I enjoyed Bardugo’s signature raising-of-stakes with each chapter, and the book’s twists and turns certainly kept me up well past my bedtime eagerly turning pages, but I did think that there were times that I felt the plot could have been easily streamlined without losing any of the tension. The main storyline, in particular, had a few digressions that ultimately felt unnecessary. That said, the characters remained deeply enjoyable for me, in particular Alex’s prickly sense of humor and tendency toward destructive decisions. Some characters who were in the background more in the first book get the chance to develop further in Hell Bent, such as anxious researcher Pamela Dawes, by-the-books police officer Turner, and Alex’s intelligent and adventurous roommate Mercy.
If you were a fan of the first book in the series, Hell Bent is a worthy follow up. For me, it meandered a bit in the middle and didn’t quite capture the energy of the first book. However, it was still great to step into Alex’s world, and I’m certainly excited for the next volume in the adventure!