To the fiery depths of hell and back…literally



By Charlotte Price

If you’re used to Rory Gilmore’s Yale as seen on “Gilmore Girls,” author Leigh Bardugo’s newest release, “Hell Bent,” may come as a bit of a shock. In Bardugo’s version of Yale, college students in secret societies dabble in the supernatural, and their unchecked privilege often has murderous effects. “Hell Bent,” a sequel to “Ninth House,” (2019) centers around a world of dark magic often only discussed in today’s conspiracy theories. 

Eight secret societies at Yale each specialize in a different sphere of magic that they use to help the rich and famous and alter world events. The ninth house, Lethe, is responsible for keeping the other eight in check and overseeing their rituals. 

Bardugo’s sarcastic, tough and hard-headed heroine (who happens to be able to see ghosts), Galaxy “Alex” Stern, is the current representative of Lethe house, though not by choice. Alex and her colleague turned friend, Pamela Dawes, are still reeling from the loss of Alex’s Lethe mentor and the former Lethe representative, Darlington, to a still-mysterious portal to hell placed by the villain the three confronted in “Ninth House.” 

Now, without the expertise of Darlington, and with the administration of Yale eager to cover up the complicated events of the last school year, Pamela and Alex must find a way to retrieve Darlington without support or a full understanding of the situation.

The desperation of these two characters to bring back Darlington from hell unearthed a new dimension in both Alex and Pamela. Alex, no longer able to rely on the skill of her capable mentor, has to face the full force of the imposter syndrome she experienced in her first year at Yale. Alex’s selection as the Lethe representative solely because of her incredibly unique ability to see ghosts creates a gap between her and her fellow Lethe members, who have been pursuing the elusive study of magic their whole lives. 

Alex was recruited to Lethe after her involvement in a complex and personal multiple homicide that is introduced in the first book and further explored in “Hell Bent.” Alex is a high school dropout coming from a background full of drug abuse, exploitation, and other hardship, and she faces a huge contrast in her new environment. Now surrounded by passionate and elite students, she feels entirely out of her depth both in Yale classes and around members of the other houses, who expect expertise. 

In “Hell Bent,” Alex is again confronted with her past and her feelings of inadequacy. However, her unique background gives her more adaptability and helps her to think quickly in the high pressure situations that the characters often end up in. Alex’s character is rough around the edges, but incredibly loyal to the people she cares about, which makes her one of my favorite things about the series. Alex’s position as an unlikely and often downright unqualified heroine adds some variety and unpredictability to the book, which is something I really valued. In “Hell Bent,” it’s not a given that Alex will come out from a difficult situation unscathed or on the moral high ground. Though I sometimes found Alex’s unpreparedness frustrating (especially in “Ninth House”), she develops into a competent student.

 Alex’s internal struggle between her love for the security she has discovered in Lethe house and her anxiety and grief about the repercussions of her past is perfectly played out in Hell Bent. Alex becomes very protective of Il Bastone, a Lethe safehouse that she finds sanctuary in, and what it symbolizes; an escape from both the physical ghosts that Alex sees and the metaphorical ghosts of her past that haunt her.  

Pamela also gains dimension beyond the reserved caretaker and academic she was in “Ninth House” — in “Hell Bent,” she becomes a part of the action and takes her place as another strong and lovable heroine. Pamela’s chronically behind-the-scenes character was one of my main criticisms of “Ninth House,” so seeing her develop as a main influence in the plot was satisfying. Though the story is told from Alex’s perspective, it is apparent to her that Pamela is experiencing a conflict between her desire to work with and support Alex and her grief for Darlington combined with the blame she assigns towards Alex regarding his loss. Pamela is what I think many people would call a “comfort character,” but I loved that she gets to be angry while still remaining a caring character. 

“Hell Bent” is the kind of fantasy novel that immediately pulls you into its world. Bardugo expertly builds the setting of Yale by including detail and history behind the artifacts and architecture that characters interact with. The lush detail really puts the reader in Alex’s shoes as she discovers the complex world of magic in this series. However, in the faster-paced moments of the book, the reasoning and explanation events can get a little foggy and confusing. Bardugo includes some symbolism and realizations that don’t get fully addressed or explained, but this leaves the opportunity for another book wide open. Because of the intricate context implicated in many of the events in the book, I would say it is definitely necessary to read “Ninth House” before jumping into “Hell Bent.”

“Hell Bent” also succeeds in creating suspense from the very first chapter, which makes it incredibly hard to put the book down. Bardugo jumps around in the timeline of the story, adding to the intrigue. In the first chapter of the book, Bardugo sets up a highly suspenseful situation that the plot doesn’t circle back to until the end of the book. The shock of this setup successfully puts the reader on high alert for the rest of the book, much like Pamela and Alex are. Alex’s uncertainty about her past, present, and future are reflected through the mystery that this style of writing creates. 

Overall, “Hell Bent” is a thrilling read that is bound to leave you wanting more from Bardugo and her multi-dimensional characters.