hell bent book coverJourney to Hell for Redemption

Author: Leigh Bardugo

What do you do when your mentor and secret crush is literally in Hell because of your actions? If you’re Alex Stern, the bad girl with a past and a gift for seeing the dead, you’ll do anything to rescue Darlington, including opening a portal to Hell in the middle of Yale. Guilt is a powerful motivator, after all, and Alex has enough blood on her trembling hands.

Hell Bent begins a few months after the ending of Ninth House. The Board of Lethe has settled the mess, hidden the bodies, invented a plausible story, and moved on. Everyone has moved on. Darlington is lost, after all. Life, and the secret world of the occult, must go on. Yet, Alex cannot forget, and she cannot move on. Dawes, the usual rule-following scholar, can’t either. And so, the two trudge through classes during the day, attend and oversee rituals, and secretly search for a way to enter Hell and retrieve Darlington, costs be damned.

Meanwhile, Alex’s messy past is catching up with her. A dreaded figure has reemerged, and it appears that he still has power and the ability to manipulate Alex, at least if she wants to keep her mother safe. Stuck in layers upon layers of a double life, Alex struggles with guilt and horror, with a certain desensitization, and with a secret temptation to let it all go, to be the fake happy student in this shimmering world, to pretend that nothing matters beyond classes and parties, to be innocent and free again. But knowledge once gained cannot be lost, enemies once gained cannot be deterred, and actions once taken cannot be undone.

While the first book was dense with meaning, tightly paced and organized, Hell Bent feels more lost. Alex is lost (we can argue that she always has been), and the events from the ending of Ninth House (a barely flickering memory that could really, really use a reminder prologue) have left a vacuum at Lethe. This has the feeling of a sequel, the verve tempered with searching, the balance of the story uneven, the pacing wildly oscillating between ideas and emotions that don’t quite tie together. We need Darlington back and we need Alex, a person not known for sentiments of guilt or chivalry, to suddenly change tactics, to be willing to risk herself. This new, strange softness that has emerged in the wake of tragedy hardly works with this fierce woman. But readers look the other way. We want Alex to go to Hell and back for her own redemption and for Darlington’s. After all, this rich boy with a foot in both worlds was part of the mystery and allure that made the first book so dynamically textured, so palpably emotional.

And so, yes, we accept that Alex needs to do some growing (or an about face) to get in gear for her next mission. But the mission itself is disorganized, and within the first forty pages of the books, a desperate Dawes and Alex are attempting an incredibly dangerous ritual with little preparation and no forethought. This rings true for Alex, who has always been suicidally inclined, but not the ever prepared, mark-all-the-steps Dawes.

This ritual gets the party started, though, and a glowing half-demon Darlington appears in the upper room of his mansion, cryptic and barely contained. The rest of the book oscillates between containing this monster version of Darlington, rescuing the human Darlington’s soul, dealing with a figure from Alex’s past, introducing a vampire into the drama, and dealing with a new overseer whose conservative nature is seriously ruining the rescue plan. More side characters become involved as Alex and Dawes build a map to the underworld and must confront the horrors of murder and the revelation of their darkest fears.

Image by Waldkunst from Pixabay

It’s still good. Of course, it’s good. It’s dark academia at it’s finest, and while it doesn’t have that same tight, perfect feel of Ninth House it’s just an absolute delight to feel the pages flowing through our fingers, to revisit these traumatized, complicated humans and journey with them on a literally soul crushing adventure that pits human greed and curiosity against less base instincts.

I was expecting the Hell-scape from an Edward Lee infernal novel or something reminiscent of the original Ultimate Doom in Hell Bent. The Hell here, however, is decidedly less brimstone, less darkness. It’s more of a sideline, a weird liminal place that we briefly see. The more important element is the demons who engage in mind games against the characters, who extract their own prices and reveal an even darker history of Lethe and the houses than originally suspected. It’s not as elegant as in the first book, but it is still page turning, still creative and horrifying, a version of Buffy the Vampire Slayer where Buffy isn’t quite the good guy anymore and yet still the only hope.

And, of course, there is Darlington and that primitive romance, that complexity of love and hate and sensuality that still roils between himself and Alex. Here, we get more of Darlington’s backstory, the why behind his survival and role in Hell, his transformation. As Alex’s powers grow, she learns more about the man she is trying to save and starts to interact more with the greys around her. It’s emotive and tantalizing, a doomed relationship that siren sings us through the pages.

Of course . . . that’s part of my quibble here. Darlington is the focus, yet when the character finally emerges from Hell, he is disconcertingly quiet. No one asks about his experiences, thinks over the true ramifications of his sudden silence, or even truly interacts with him once he has returned. It’s a disappointing come down, this sudden lack of communication, this awkward return to an unearned normal. There are hints, however, that this will change.

I’m excited to keep reading, to follow this growing world, to see what Darlington’s time in Hell has wrought in him, to understand what the characters will do now with their new, terrible knowledge. While Hell Bent wasn’t perfect, it was still good, engaging and engrossing, another step into a dark, troubled world that alternates the terrifying with the poignancy of despair and the loneliness of doomed humans, forever dancing around things they cannot understand, failing to reach out, failing to connect, failing to walk away from powers they cannot ever hope to understand.

– Frances Carden

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Frances Carden
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