Tuesday, August 22, 2023

Microreview [book]: Hell Bent by Leigh Bardugo

Hell Bent returns to Yale for more demons but less social commentary.

A silver and white cover with an albino white rabbit on the front. The text for HELL BENT takes up most of the cover.

Note: This review contains spoilers for Ninth House.

As the dark academia subgenre continues to grow, Leigh Bardugo returns to Yale in her sequel to Ninth House (which I reviewed here). In Hell Bent, Alex must rescue her friend and mentor Darlington even though the higher-ups in the magical underworld of Yale have forbidden her. Full of Yale mystery, Hell Bent follows the characters fans of Ninth House came to love, but the social critique falls off in this adventurous sequel.  

While Ninth House ended in a huge cliffhanger—Darlington being swallowed into hell—the sequel jumps right in with Alex on the warpath to save Darlington whether the people of Lethe want her to or not. While most consider him dead or a lost cause, Alex and Dawes, the PhD student and Oculus for House Lethe, are certain the right spell or ritual will bring Darlington back to them. With Dawes’ research skills, they discover a ritual to try, but something goes wrong. They aren’t sure exactly what they released from hell—or if Darlington could remain there for so long unchanged.

Meanwhile, Alex still has to manage being a daughter, friend, and powerful enforcer for a gangster in California. Thanks to her training with Darlington and her time at Lethe, she has much better control of the ghosts she can see—and now hear. But ghosts are not the only monsters lurking around Yale, and Alex has to appease predatory alumni come back to check on Lethe. 

While Ninth House had an exacting structure, Hell Bent more loosely plays with time when convenient for the narrative. Told from Alex’s point-of-view (rather than alternating as in the first book), we see how competent she’s become at her job as Virgil, reluctantly replacing Darlington. Alex revels in her power and knowledge, and its cathartic to see her use all the tools of Lethe and her power to bring back a person she cares about. While the previous book focused on her relationship with Darlington, in Hell Bent, she must build a team to help her descend into hell, including Turner, her connection on the New Haven police department. In their attempt to rescue Darlington, Alex and her team must face their personal demons, fleshing out these secondary characters who took a backseat in book one to the tension between Alex and Darlington.

One thing I appreciated in Ninth House is largely absent in Hell Bent and speaks to the larger tension in the dark academia subgenre: actually critiquing the systems of higher education. In Ninth House, Alex’s struggle as a student coming from poverty, moving across the country, dealing with the ivy league classism played a part in the story. Another plotline dealt with sexual assault on campuses. In Hell Bent, such commentary takes a back seat to the adventure. What gestures Bardugo does include, such as mentioning the racial history of New Haven and Yale, fall flat as they tokenize the only major Black character in the book, Turner. 

With the publication of R. F. Kuang’s excellent Babel, the subgenre of dark academia is at a crossroads of what the dark should mean. Is dark academia merely an aesthetic, set dressing for any story, with rich autumnal colors, ivied brick, and monsters lurking in the library? Or, does the “dark” reference the need to recognize the horrors inherent in higher education, from white supremacy and colonialism to classism and rape culture? Currently, the majority of books lean on aesthetic while less see critique as foundational, with Babel being the premiere example. Ninth House contributed to both sides, aesthetic and some cultural commentary, but Hell Bent lands squarely on aesthetic. 

While I wish Bardugo had returned to the critique woven into the first book, her use of Yale as a location is masterful. For those enamored with the campus after reading Ninth House, Bardugo continues to unearth new mysterious and magical locations within Yale’s campus, complete with bizarre architectural history. I worried she wouldn’t be able to center the campus so fully after unraveling the Yale mysteries in book one. While she doesn’t have to do as much worldbuilding to set the scene, she narrows her focus as Alex and Dawes search campus for clues about how to save Darlington. 

While the critique was lost, Bardugo did pump up the action. Due to the detailed worldbulding around Yale and New Haven combined with the strict alternating structure of both time and point-of-view, it was easy to feel lost in Ninth House. In Hell Bent, the action starts and doesn’t stop. This novel felt much more in line with The Six of Crows duology in terms of pacing and plotting. For fans of the dark academia aesthetic, this novel is a fast-paced romp throwing complication upon complication onto the initial plot: rescue Darlington. 

Fans of dark academia will be pleased with the aesthetic and setting of Hell Bent, though at the expense of the social critique. While Ninth House was at times a plodding meditation on character, the sequel turns up the tension and the pacing with a direct plot that becomes more complicated with each chapter. Alex remains a likeable character coming into not only her power as she is able to see, here, and call ghosts to her aid—but also her wrath. She is not afraid to be angry and use that anger against those that come for her found family. Overall, Hell Bent is an engaging and enjoyable sequel to the popular Ninth House, but I hope the next book returns to the social critiques present in book one.


The Math

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10: well worth your time and attention

Reference: Bardugo, Leigh. Hell Bent [Flatiron Books, 2023]

Posted by: Phoebe Wagner is an author, editor, and academic writing and living at the intersection of speculative fiction and ecology.