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Alex Stern #2

Hell Bent

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Wealth. Power. Murder. Magic. Alex Stern is back and the Ivy League is going straight to hell in #1 New York Times bestselling author Leigh Bardugo's Hell Bent.

Find a gateway to the underworld. Steal a soul out of hell. A simple plan, except people who make this particular journey rarely come back. But Galaxy “Alex” Stern is determined to break Darlington out of purgatory―even if it costs her a future at Lethe and at Yale.

Forbidden from attempting a rescue, Alex and Dawes can’t call on the Ninth House for help, so they assemble a team of dubious allies to save the gentleman of Lethe. Together, they will have to navigate a maze of arcane texts and bizarre artifacts to uncover the societies’ most closely guarded secrets, and break every rule doing it. But when faculty members begin to die off, Alex knows these aren’t just accidents. Something deadly is at work in New Haven, and if she is going to survive, she’ll have to reckon with the monsters of her past and a darkness built into the university’s very walls.

Thick with history and packed with Bardugo’s signature twists, Hell Bent brings to life an intricate world full of magic, violence, and all too real monsters.

481 pages, Hardcover

First published January 10, 2023

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About the author

Leigh Bardugo

77 books150k followers
Leigh Bardugo is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of Ninth House and the creator of the Grishaverse (now a Netflix original series) which spans the Shadow and Bone trilogy, the Six of Crows duology, the King of Scars duology—and much more. Her short fiction has appeared in multiple anthologies including The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy. She lives in Los Angeles and is an associate fellow of Pauli Murray College at Yale University. For information on new releases and appearances, sign up for her newsletter.

She would be delighted if you visited her at LeighBardugo.com and fairly giddy if you liked her selfies on Instagram.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 9,511 reviews
Profile Image for chai ♡.
321 reviews153k followers
February 11, 2023
This series has become for me like that one relationship that I know isn't really working anymore but that I cannot quit because every now and then, something good would happen and for one brief blissful moment—I would forget all my reasons not to stay.

I think my profound dissatisfaction with this series stems generally from my sense of its inadequate execution. At bottom, it all boils down to this: you’ve got all these really interesting characters caught up in a web of complicated relationships and carrying enough emotional baggage to fill an entire stadium—but as readers, we never get to spend enough time with them, and they never get a moment to just breathe, because they are always running off after some new mystery or some new unexpected plot turn (which are, more often than not, revealed to be nothing more than red herrings), and we are always chasing after them, hoping they would just stop and sit and think. To me, that’s when the most powerfully rewarding moments of the story occur: in stillness, in the quiet interludes in which the characters are at last allowed to speak to us, to speak to each other, to be vulnerable, and to feel the depth of horror of what they experienced. I simultaneously hungered for these moments, so few and far between, and dreaded when the characters would inevitably be yanked back by the leash of a restless hectic plot that was far less interesting than the (mostly) human puzzles on the page.

This is, ultimately, the novel's major flaw: that the pursuit of plot tramps the pursuit of everything else—including characterization and thematic exploration—and that this, in turn, tends to pull the electricity out of the more emotionally-charged moments of the story. I wish that the book had dived more into its thematic deep ends in order to allow space for the story to grow more organically opaque (re: about the deep-rooted corruption at the heart of academia; about the nature of magic and hell and the price of desire; about all the minutie of surviving in a world that wants us to disappear, and how the painful intimate traumas that we've carried for so long turn us into distorted images of ourselves). I wish, too, that the book lingered more on some of the exciting reveals that the series had been crescendoing into. I wanted to live in those moments more. Instead, it’s almost like the story is determined to be painfully anticlimactic, rendering what should be singularly defining moments in the narrative unsatisfyingly hollow by virtue of quickly glossing over them. For example, . And, moreover, .

In other words, it is clear that Bardugo is an author with an abundance of ideas, but she tends to go for big splashy plot gestures and fails to reckon with the interiority of her characters or attend to the more minute particularities of the story. As a result, I couldn’t help stepping out of the story itching over that absence, all that unrealized thematic and emotional potential.

With that said, will I be reading the next book because I need Alex and Darlington to just bang for the love of god become endgame? Well.
Profile Image for emma.
1,823 reviews48.6k followers
March 22, 2023
hi goodreads and welcome to my villain origin story.

you may be tempted to say "emma, you are already a villain. your entire persona on this website and in real, actual life is of a sort of gremlin who eats happiness and projects existential dread. all of your opinions are unpopular and the circumstances required for you to like a book increasingly sound like some sort of witchy instructions for an old-timey love spell."

to which i would be forced to say, fair. and also forced to follow up: things are about to get even worse.

this was my most anticipated book of the last MULTIPLE YEARS...and it's just not even good.

the plot is all over the place. the characters don't feel right. there are forced-in additional perspectives that don't track. the dark academia vibe is gone. there's too much magic, too many mythical creatures. it feels like a totally different genre. alex is suddenly a beautiful girl who's constantly being hit on, instead of a skinny scary badass. darlington is, as it turns out, a snooze when not a mystery.

everything i liked about this book is gone, replaced by something i actively dislike.

i can't force myself to give this lower than 3 stars, because i so actively anticipated it for so many years. and yet.

bottom line: this book is straight-up bad.



that didn't go according to plan.

review to come / 3 stars tops :(

tbr review

please respect my privacy at this time (i need to cry quietly until this book is in my hands)

update: TEARS OVER.

buddy read with lily eeeeeee
Profile Image for Kai Spellmeier.
Author 6 books13.6k followers
Shelved as 'desperate-to-read'
October 25, 2019
I consider the absence of a release date as a blatant personal attack
Profile Image for NickReads.
461 reviews1,199 followers
Want to read
June 2, 2020
since this book is going to be released in 2021, I've decided to skip 2020 once and for all. Thanks for coming to my TED Talk.
1 review4 followers
January 11, 2023
There is a glowing demon dick and no one even uses it
Profile Image for megs_bookrack.
1,538 reviews9,833 followers
June 3, 2023
Hell Bent is the second release in the Alex Stern series by Leigh Bardugo. I'm told this is a trilogy, but at this point I would certainly accept more.

As this is the second book in the series, I may mention certain things in this review that some may consider spoilers for the first book. I will try not to, but if you are concerned at all, turn back now.

In this book, we find Alex and Dawes desperately trying to find Darlington and bring him back from...well, hell.

It's so dangerous and many would have chalked it up as a loss, but Alex and Dawes refuse to give up. After a failed attempt, it's clear the girls cannot achieve their goal alone. Dawes thinks she knows the reason and the type of team they will need to assemble to help them.

They need to find two other people with a very specific qualification. It won't be easy, but there's more going on in New Haven than Darlington being missing. It's imperative they work quickly.

As faculty members begin to mysteriously die off, it's clear Alex and Dawes will need all the help they can get.

In this installment, both Alex and Darlington's backstories continue to be built-out, but we also get more info on the side characters. Most importantly, the things that these characters have been through in their lives that make them strong additions to this team. They've all had their traumas.

I loved the team ultimately assembled, every one of them. It was giving me light Buffy-vibes in a couple of different ways and I was verrrrrry here for it.

Alex's past comes back to haunt her when she least expects it, providing us with a very convincing new villain. I was really intrigued with the new occult/supernatural elements explored in this one, the new villain being one of those.

I think my favorite thing about this was watching Alex let down her guard a bit with her peers, or dare I say, friends. She has always been closed off, so watching her accept help from others was really very satisfying.

The closing scenes left me so excited for the next book. There is absolutely zero information on it right now, that I know of. It literally could be years away, but you better believe I will be rereading these first two books again prior to its release.

Upon completion, I was left with my head spinning, racing and ecstatic. There was so much that happened over the course of this story, I can still hardly wrap my brain around it all. I seriously can't wait to move forward with this series!

Profile Image for myo ✧༺ ༘♡ ༻∞.
742 reviews6,518 followers
January 15, 2023
i’m actually lost for words? i was so scared this was going to disappoint me and for a second in the beginning i was kinda thinking it would but just when i needed it to leigh bardugo pulled through. i loved the found family vibes, i loved galaxy stern and i loved darlington naked with horns in his slut era this entire book. leigh bardugo better never make me wait 3 years again but this was definitely more than worth it.
Profile Image for jessica.
2,535 reviews32.6k followers
January 14, 2023
nearly a year later and the cover still makes me deeply uncomfortable. i know they say never judge a book by its cover, but sometimes they are just a massive turn off. and this is one of them.

thankfully, i dont think my aversion bled over into my feelings about the story. while i didnt enjoy this as much as ‘ninth house,’ primarily because of the drawn out plot and narrative, this still has all the magical charm i associate with LB and the dark world-building that defines this series. i think readers who care about the characters will enjoy this immensely as i feel like they are truly what sell this story.

so, overall, a decent sequel and one that further cements LBs place in adult fantasy.

3.5 stars
Profile Image for ✨ A ✨ .
427 reviews1,728 followers
March 29, 2023
I'd risk it all for Daniel Arlington too


Alex and Dawes are on a perilous mission to recue Darlington from Hell. When Lethe refuses to assist them, they bravely decide to rescue him themselves, no matter the cost to their lives and their standing with Lethe.

After a few failed attempts Alex and Dawes assemble a team to help them on their quest.

But a trip to Hell is not their only problem. Professors are dying on campus, a new Praetor has been selected, and Alex discovers that her past has caught up with her at Yale.

“Lethe doesn’t care about people like you and me. No one is looking out for us but us.”

That prologue was 😱! It was so effective in creating a spooky atmosphere that I was instantly hooked and couldn't look away. The tension was palpable and I felt like I was right there in the scene. It was the perfect way to start the story and set the tone for the rest of the book. I knew I was in for a thrilling ride.

This series has a distinct vibe compared to Leigh Bardugo's other works. As I read, I was so immersed that I forgot it was written by the same author who wrote Shadow and Bone. Bardugo's writing has clearly matured, and we love to see it!

Ghosts and paranormal activity are not typically my cup of tea, but when Bardugo does it, I'm all in!

As a sequel i think Hell Bent was a stellar follow up to Ninth House. It did what it needed to do whilst avoided the typical sequel pitfalls . The autumnal vibes and historic setting combined with the mystery elements - was just ahh!! So good!

In this book, Alex has finally opened herself up to friendship. I'm so happy to see her growth! She's allowing herself to care about people and form connections. *Wipes away tear* *Proud mom smile*.

I loved seeing Dawes and Alex working together. They were a dynamic duo, kicking butt and taking names.

I just adore the whole little team from Turner and Mercy and even Tripp.

I don't want to give away any spoilers about Darlington. All I'll say is that I need to see my Alex and Darlington ship sail asap!

“You found me once, Stern. You'll find me again.”

Hell Bent ended off perfectly, leaving us with enough crumbs to keep us begging for more.

Hopefully this time we wont have to wait 4 years for the next book 🤞
Profile Image for Melanie (MelReads).
108 reviews11.1k followers
March 16, 2023
first book in months that i found myself getting lost in the story and actually getting the escapism that made me fall in love with reading in the first place! SO SO good🛐🛐🛐
Profile Image for ELLIAS (elliasreads).
477 reviews38.2k followers
Want to read
September 1, 2022
I don't even remember what happens in the first book but im still going to read this.
Profile Image for Tara ☽.
304 reviews251 followers
January 16, 2023
5 stars for Darlington's oversized glowstick cock
Profile Image for persephone ☾.
467 reviews2,073 followers
Want to read
January 1, 2023
what in the world is this cover ?
thanks leigh bardugo i'm gonna have nightmares for the rest of the week now <3
Profile Image for toointofiction.
195 reviews154 followers
April 2, 2023
"Galaxy Stern,” Darlington said, his eyes flashing gold, “I have been crying out to you from the start.”

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

Spice Meter: 🌶️ (that's all Darlington btw)

⚠️Trigger Warning: Blackmail, Nudity, Coarse Language, Mentions of Rape, Mentions of Drug Abuse, Graphic Scenes, Death⚠️

This review is spoiler-free

How??? How is this even better than the first one?? I couldn't put it down for even a second. Not that there was even a chance for me to do anything else before I finished it. The beginning was such a tease that it pretty much ensured I wouldn't be able to look away. I'm so glad I bought the ebook as well, instead of waiting for my copy to come a month later. I mean, I finished the whole book and then the hard copy was shipped 🙄🙄 I couldn't possibly imagine waiting that long, I would have gone insane...even more so than what this book did to me. Also, as if the beginning wasn't thrilling enough, that ending has me jumping up and down like a little kid. I am so excited about book 3, I'm going to start manifesting its release date. It's probably not going to work but I can't wait another three years. I can't!!

Alex is 10000x better than she was in the first book and she was already incredible in Ninth House. She is an unapologetic badass and she owns me. I love her with all my heart and I want her to use my soul to destroy her enemies. Her attitude towards pretty much anything is pure gold, she has awesome comebacks, and she is willing to kill when it's called for without losing any sleep about it. Normally, that last one would be a major red flag but I have a major soft spot for morally gray characters, especially Leigh Bardugo's morally gray characters. **cough cough* The Darkling and Kaz *cough cough*.

As for my favourite boy Darlington, I would gladly kill and die for him, I would let him tear me in half with his giant demon hands and I'd thank him for it. All my suspicions were correct, demon!Darlington is hot as fuck. He has this devil-may-care attitude now, no pun intended but fun anyway, mixed with his natural gallantry that put him right into my list of fictional male hotties. Demon gentleman, indeed. 😏😏 I am so glad I got so much more of him in this book...So. Much. More. ��👀...I'm definitely talking about his glowstick.

Although, when it comes to the relationship between them, these two are taking it so unbelievably, frustratingly slow that I'm just about ready to explode. It's obvious they have feelings for each other, which was never in question, but it's also clear that they aren't ready to act on those feelings. It's understandable, they've been through a lot, but it's also frustrating because I JUST WANT THEM TO BE HAPPY AND TOGETHER!!! I mean, I am sure they are both curious about what the other is like in bed, so why not just give in and find out? It's clearly for educational purposes, and Alex and Darlington love education...👀👀

Moreover, I literally love every single secondary character in this series, except for the bad guys, of course. Dawes is a wonderful genius and her loyalty to Alex and Darlington is everything I live for. Turner, the grumpy detective, is just as adorable even though he is still reluctant to form a friendship with Alex. He's getting there, though. Alex can get under everyone's skin, one way or another. 😆😆 There is, however, one secondary character that is my absolute favourite in this series, in fact, he booted Dawes from her spot at number one. Tripp Helmuth is the best, most adorable character in the entire series and no one better hurt him because I will go feral on them. He must be protected at all costs. There is no joy without him.

Have you read Ninth House and Hell Bent, yet?
Profile Image for ✭ emilee ✭.
424 reviews32 followers
January 16, 2023
darlington is gonna make me into a demon f*cker isn't he..............

the answer to the above question is one simple word: p r e d i l e c t i o n
Profile Image for Zoe (taylor's version) .
304 reviews1,226 followers
Want to read
April 3, 2022
is that a furless rabbit?

Ummm, Leigh babes, me and you need to have a serious conversation
Profile Image for Megan ❀.
446 reviews215 followers
January 17, 2023
Me, suffering an acute kind of agony after finishi-

Okay, okay, I won't say it, but seriously, these books have me in a CHOKE HOLD.

But was Hell Bent worth the over three year wait? ...honestly, I don't know.

Don't get me wrong, I absolutely DEVOURED this book. I could not put it down. When I wasn't reading it, I was thinking about it, counting down the minutes until I could get back to it. But Hell Bent is a very different book than its predecessor.

Ninth House was an occult dark academia about secret societies, ghosts, and a murder mystery, told through dual POVs in two timelines. Hell Bent, on the other hand, is a much more linear paranormal novel primarily concerned with the descent into hell, featuring puzzles, magical artifacts, and demons. NH is a slow burn that takes place over the course of almost an entire school year, but HB covers a span of weeks and is considerably more action-packed. Neither is better than the other, they're just different.

The difference in vibes between the two novels is not surprising. Originally, Leigh Bardugo set out to write a long series of loosely connected but self-contained novels featuring Alex Stern as the common thread, similar to Jim Butcher's Dresden Files or Patricia Brigg's Mercy Thompson. But now that the series has been condensed down to 3-5 books, the tonal shift doesn't quite work for me. A lot of the elements that were the main focus of the first book - ghosts, Yale's secret societies, the college experience of classes and parties and roommates - take a backseat to the new or expanded upon elements in Hell Bent. But those were some of my favorite aspects of the first book, so I felt their absence in HB more keenly.

But I don't want to do this book a disservice, even if I preferred Ninth House more, because it is absolutely excellent. Darlington remains one of the most intriguing, nuanced characters of this series, and Alex never disappoints with her snarky one-liners, inner darkness, and willingness to tear herself apart - both mentally and physically - for the people she cares about. The complex, tense relationship these two share as they straddle the line between teacher-student and friends, while also dancing around desire that may not even have a place to exist on that line, remains one of the most decadent parts of these books. Every time Darlington and Alex are on the page together? Absolutely delicious, FINALLY some good fucking food.

So I think if you liked Ninth House but didn't love it, Hell Bent will probably be a home run for you. I love both with my whole heart, but Ninth House just did it a little better for me.

God I'm just so. I need the next book now. The thought of waiting years again makes me want to burst into flame, y'know?

Pre-release review:

Edit 4/1/22:


Original review:

"Expected publication: June 1st 2021"

Me, suffering an acute kind of agony after finishing Ninth House:
Profile Image for Melanie.
1,172 reviews98.2k followers
March 3, 2023
Ninth House ★★★

“Welcome home. Welcome back. We missed you. I missed you more than I should have, more than I wanted to. I went to hell for you. I’d do it again.”

a reminder that 3 star ratings aren't bad ratings hehehe! i enjoyed this, i just didn't love it the way i wish i did... but that's okay because i still had a really good time turning these pages! this is still such a powerful series, and i can't wait for whatever book three has in store! <3

trigger + content warnings: loss of a loved one, blood depictions, abuse, mentions of rape in past, murder, death, gore, panic attacks, fire, talk of attempted suicide, talk of suicide, self harm for blood for magic, possession and compulsion, bullying, brief mentions of overdosing, drugs, drugs use, police brutality, cancer mention, vomiting, heat attack mention, animal death, talk of electric shock therapy, mentions of bugs/maggots/spiders, and very bad and abusive relationships with people and with parents in the past. this book can get very dark at times and has constant themes of abuse - please use caution while reading and make sure you're in a good space for it in your life.

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Profile Image for booksnpenguins (wingspan matters).
765 reviews2,366 followers
February 9, 2023
"You always looked like you had trouble chasing you."
Alex jabbed the door-close button. "So?"
"Now you look like it caught up."

This book has LB unhinged written all over the pages and IT SHOWS.

★𝗪𝗥𝗜𝗧𝗜𝗡𝗚: ✍🏼✍🏼✍🏼✍🏼/5
★𝗣𝗟𝗢𝗧: 📜📜📜📜/5
★𝗥𝗢𝗠𝗔𝗡𝗖𝗘: 🌹🌹/5 (𝙼𝙴𝙷)

I had some trouble putting this down because it's a rollercoaster that never stops; so full of action and nail-biting moments that made me regret not saving this for when I'm in a slup, it definitely didn't suffer from the sequel syndrome that often relegates second books in a series in a dusty corner because they're basically nothing but filler.
Hell Bent takes your preconceptions and kicks them in the ass so hard you'll never doubt a sequel ever again.
I found Alex even more interesting this time around than I did the first (I actually liked this better than I did TNH) and I had the chance to fall in love with LB's writing all over again as pages and plot progressed.

HOWEVER, I admit I expected this to go into a different direction and was a little disappointed to see it didn't. Not fully, anyway.
I found some parts to be unnecessary (or unnecessarily long) to the plot and the characters' development; in LB's defense, this sequel really felt more like a part 2 than a different story with the same characters, so I guess I should have thought of it as a continuation rather than a new adventure.
I also didn't like how you literally can't catch a breath with this story. I know I said I LOVE that this is fast-paced and packed to the brim with paranormal shenanigans, but I would have appreciated more time to decompress and between an action scene and the other and maybe spend some time in the mind of someone who wasn't Alex.

I'm also very very very very sad that . I mean...
Oh, well, we all know this is how LB rolls, and some things aren't necessary for a book to be good, but... and book 3 better provide.

Overall this was a worthy sequel and a peculiar new adventure that gives off Kingsman meets Lockwood & Co. vibes, but make it heisty and emotionally twisty.
Also, isn't just me or does Darlington actually resembles The Raven Cycle's Gansey? A grown-up, less starry-eyed version of Gansey, but their curiosity and their love for anything mythologial and magical felt the same. I love them both so much T___T

Happy reading to those who, like me, have been waiting for this for the past 84 years.
Have fun and...watch out for glowsticks.
Profile Image for Katie Colson.
653 reviews5,825 followers
January 23, 2023
I'm sorry to you and to myself. I just don't get it. What are the girlies talking about??

This book took me over 2 weeks to read. I didn't understand why it was taking *this* long to rescue this man. And when we did...'anticlimactic' isn't a good enough word.

It isn't a bad book by any means but why does it exist? Nothing happens other than searching for Darlington. There's no plot.

Also, let's discuss the concept of Galaxy Stern being an ACTUAL bisexual. Because Pamela Dawes is RIGHT THERE! And she somehow glances over her and every turn. I mean, I totally understand and agree that Darlington is hot. But Dawes is a flaming ace in the hole. She is THE one. What is Alex thinking? Dawes is the Practical Magic dream every lesbian is dreaming of and Alex is sleeping right past the alarms.

Anyway, I felt very bored by most of this book. It didn't feel very relevant.

I want to stress again that I didn't think it was bad. But very disappointing.
Profile Image for karen.
3,979 reviews170k followers
October 6, 2022

clawing my way back to here because, while there are a lot of pleasures i'll let die by the roadside whilst ostriching thru depression, spooktober ain't one of them.


review to come!


this cover is PERFECTION and i cannot wait.

Profile Image for Tucker  (TuckerTheReader).
908 reviews1,597 followers
Shelved as 'not-released-tbr'
June 26, 2020
[10/22/2019] - okay, so apparently, the title is in the last chapter (thank you, jae for letting me know!) here are my guesses:

Long Ago Fire
Moseleum of Book and Snake
The Graves of Poets and Scholars
Between Two Stone Sphinxes
Gentlemen of Lethe
Gentlemen Demon
The Union of Sulfur and Sin

➵ = my favorites


I find your lack of a title, cover, synopsis, and release date disturbing

Ninth House - ★★★★★

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Profile Image for B .
114 reviews12.1k followers
February 9, 2023
5 stars -
I went back and forth heavily in this rating, and it’s only because of the last 8 pages of the book. In theory, the set up for the next possible book is interesting, but the pace of it was off and felt a bit cheesy. Obviously not cheesy enough for me to give it anything under 5 stars, though. Loved it. I was so invested in the story and honestly liked it so much more than the first book, and I already loved ninth house.
Profile Image for jaymiej.
144 reviews
April 4, 2023
5/ 5⭐
0/5 🌶️

The follow-up to Ninth House, Hell Bent tells the story of Alex Stern’s determination to restore the Virgil to her Dante at Lethe. This series is addictive, magical, dark and twisted. All these little plots that all tie in to the big plot, the way it keeps me guessing and thinking the whole time. Magic for adults. A dive into hell. Demons and vampires and Wheelwalkers. Alex Stern has become one of my favorite contemporary characters in fiction. She’s the sarcastic, tough as nails magnet for trouble heroine we all need. Only thing missing to me would be more of a connection with Darlington and Alex. I want them to be lovers damn it! They clearly pine for each other.

I can’t wait to see how Mercy character develop in book three. She has grow so much in the last two books. Dawes continues to be just the best. I love the idea that she’s a witch too. Tunner and Tripp are cool too.


“I will serve you ’til the end of days.”

“His monstrous queen. His gentle ruler.”

“I’m bound to you, Stern. To the woman who brought me out of hell. I will serve you ’til the end of days.”

“Life is cruel. Magic is real. And I’m not ready to die”

“I like this life better.” “Better than what?” “Better than what I was living before. Better than a world without magic. I think I’ve been waiting my whole life for the moment someone would see something in me that wasn’t ordinary.”

“And what tools did Alex have? A little magic. A talent for misfortune. The ability to take a beating. It would have to be enough. 'This is my home,' she vowed, and nothing will take it from me.”
Profile Image for Queen Cronut.
183 reviews37 followers
Want to read
October 28, 2019
idc= i don't care
idk= i don't know
iddir= if darlington dies, i'm rioting
Profile Image for Robin.
310 reviews1,458 followers
September 6, 2022
can’t say much because flatiron books is literally inside my walls but full rating and review to come closer to publication!!
Profile Image for Sneezle McGee.
119 reviews24 followers
May 29, 2023
At the risk of sounding mean, a thought which frequently occurred to me while reading this was “ah, Leigh Bardugo is just making shit up”. While this might seem obvious given that this is a fantasy novel, what I mean is that I was constantly pulled out of the flow of reading a book by the weird ways in which the way it’s written inadvertently draws attention to itself as a text composed of sentences written to meet a word count for publishers.

For the sake of organizing my Many Thoughts I shall chunk this review into sections.

1. Demington (nick name is a work in progress)

This issue is a light one to start off with but I have to say Darlington in demon form radiates total YA energy. It feels like an image of a character designed with the express purpose of appealing to the tiktok girlies. He is totally naked and more muscular in demon form than in human form and his hair has grown to a sexy shoulder length and he has golden horns and golden eyes and golden tattoos and his “cock [is] very erect and shining like a supercharged, oversized glowstick” (65) (the fact that his erect penis is emitting a heavenly light is mentioned no less than three times in case you thought you misread this).

2. People Don’t Act Like People

In a scene that seemingly comes out of nowhere, Alex decides on a whim to explain not only that magic is real to her normie roommate Mercy Zhao but also to summarize the entire plot of Ninth House including Darlington getting sent to hell and coming back half in and half out of reality as a literal demon who Alex needs to either save or kill before the hellbeast overtakes him and destroys the world or some shit. Mercy���s reaction leaves much to be desired in terms of being a reaction that a normal human being would have to anything at all. She immediately believes everything, says that it all makes sense given Alex’s behaviour the past year of sneaking out of the dorms sometimes and having the occasional depressive episode, and tells Alex not to lie to her again. She also mentions that she’s been using a therapy app because reviewers of Ninth House complained about Mercy’s seeming lack of doing anything post being a vehicle for a rape revenge plot and the author wants us to know she read those complaints and mercy is indeed in therapy. At the end of the conversation, most of which happens off page and is summarized in a sentence or two, when Alex is walking away, Mercy ends this already unnatural conversation with the most YA novel response one could have to learning that demons are real by asking Alex if Darlington is the reason she hasn’t dated anyone in the 12 months she has known her. Alex waffles about how he’s “too expensive” and also has horns and Mercy jokes about how well she has a birthmark shaped like wisconsin. Very bizarre to end this scene with playful teasing about the potential darlington/alex ship when one of the parties is currently trapped in a demonic circle half in half out of hell and might have to be put down if they can’t separate him from his demon in time.

2. 1. People Don’t Act Like People → Mercy is Not a Person

Mercy Zhao’s entire character is predicated on being a non character. She is the ultimate NPC. Any reaction she has no matter how inhuman in its sheer lack of reaction can’t be called “out of character” because very little characterization was ever established to begin with. She is Nice, she is booksmart, and she wears quirky clothes. I hesitate to call this meagre collection of traits even two dimensional.

In Ninth House, Mercy exists because Leigh Bardugo wanted an excuse to have a scene where a rapist eats shit, so the rapist must first have a victim to rape, and Mercy just happens to be the vehicle through which this revenge plot travels. Someone needs to notify Alex’s mom of her temporary funk so she can be drawn out of said funk and progress the rest of the plot, and Mercy, who has not been in the narrative since the rape plot and will continue to not be in the narrative for the rest of the book, luckily just happens to be there.

I suspect Leigh Bardugo heard the negative response some critics had to Mercy’s lack of involvement in the first book, so in Hell Bent when Alex and the gang need a fifth person to complete their HellQuest, Mercy is just slotted in there to give her something to do. She doesn’t even join in on HellQuest proper, she just stands guard out of frame while everyone else goes to hell.

This Mercy effect, (being absent from the until Leigh Bardugo needs a side character to progress the plot and inexplicably materializing), is at its most literal and by extension most absurd in Chapter 9. Alex meets with Dawes to discuss plot shit which eventually leads to them debating how they are going to find a fifth person for HellQuest, when Mercy interrupts them stating that she will be their fifth person. Apparently she has just been sitting on the couch in the same room as them this entire time. She followed Alex in, and neither Alex or Dawes notice this whole ass human being entering and just sitting down within earshot for this entire conversation until they express their need for a side character and Mercy asserts herself as the one for the job. Alex and Dawes warn her of the danger of doing the hell portal opening ritual, but Mercy calmly tosses aside their concerns as if it is inconceivable that anyone but her could be doing the ritual. And Alex and Dawes also quickly just accept it. It���s like they’re all aware they are characters in a novel and it is unfathomable that anyone else would do this task, even someone more qualified (i.e. has known magic even existed for more than like a day) because Mercy is a named character and Leigh Bardugo has to make her a player in the plot because reviewers complained in the last book about Mercy disappearing from the book after her utility as a rape victim was finished.

2. 2. People Don’t Act Like People → People Don’t Care About What the Reader Already Knows Not To Care About

Also in the vein of people not asking questions normal human beings would, a pivotal part of HellQuest is finding four murderers to walk the gauntlet. Alex, Dawes, and Turner have all already killed someone, so they use a magical slave catching device to locate their fourth murderer, who ends up being side character Tripp Helmuth. (As an aside, Turner is outraged at the repurposed slave catching magical gizmo, but aside from a line in the acknowledgements where Leigh Bardugo links a website about the history of slavery at Yale this never becomes relevant to the book in terms of plot or theme. To me it read as a shoehorned aside for Bardugo to let us know that she is in fact Aware of Slavery and its badness, but the legacy of slavery will never be interrogated by the book because it’s not relevant to Alex’s personal journey). Anyway, Tripp is presented as a bumbling idiot who the gang is just relieved to have as a fourth member. Not a single person stops to ask him “by the way Tripp, who did you murder?”. In fact nobody asks each other who they killed upon revelation that they did indeed kill someone, even though I feel like it would be something most people would at least be curious about, even a little.

After they’ve already gone to hell once, Mercy asks Alex who she killed, and Alex says some vague lines about it being “too many people” and how she doesn’t feel bad about any of it. Mercy responds to the revelation that Alex is a serial killer the same way she reacts to the revelation that magic is real, which is to say not at all. We as the audience know that the killings were all either in self defence or under the influence of ghost possession, and I guess Mercy is just in tune with the vibes of everything being chill. In a paragraph elaborating Alex’s angst she refers to herself as “the only real sinner in the bunch [the bunch in question being the murderers]”, because Dawes killed defending Alex from a violent attacker, Turner is a cop so presumably he just killed some guy on duty who had it coming (kind of a fucked up assumption imo but this review is long enough), and also absolves Tripp of any sin because “muddleheaded Tripp had no doubt bumbled into something he couldn’t handle” (242). This strikes me as kind of an insane claim to make when not only does Alex not know anything about who Tripp killed because nobody asked, but also because it was kind of a major theme of the first book about how rich white boys can use their wealth and status to absolve themselves of any responsibility in harming people less privileged. We soon learn through hell induced memory sharing shenanigans that Tripp is indeed Not a Bad Dude, he just chose not to act when his abuser died as a result of his own actions, but I don’t like how up until the reveal the novel frames the question of “wait, who did this guy murder?” as something we don’t even need to think about, let alone worry about.

3. Gritty Tone???

Near the very end Hell Bent contains a graphic flashback of animal death and it's one of the most gruesome parts of the whole book. It took me a while to work out why I was so upset by this one scene of animal gore when there are so many human on human violence scenes in Ninth House which I didn't take offense to but other people did. I am not usually one to gate keep who can and cannot include certain material in their books, but I think the issue here for me stems from whether or not shocking content is appropriate to the rest of the text surrounding it. I didn't find the sexual assault scenes in Ninth House beyond the pale because one of the major themes of Ninth House is sexual assault and how people in power cover it up. The whole book in terms of theme and tone was building up to those sexual assault scenes. I didn't consider them shock value because they weren't shocking based on the way the book builds up to them in terms of plot and tone.

Hell Bent, however, lacks any thematic clarity that would make this scene necessary or even make sense thematically (I've already mentioned how Bardugo is willing to name drop acts of historical cruelty but doesn't actually follow up on them with the repurposed slave catching device). There seems to be very little thematic coherency here at all. It also isn't justified by the tone, because as mentioned, this book feels incredibly YA most of the time. Just recall my first point, Demington. It's very telling to me that Leigh Bardugo is willing to go into graphic detail of the murder of a beloved pet rabbit for shock value but refuses to let literally being physically trapped in hell affect Darlington in any way that would make him even marginally less sexy. It frankly seems kind of cowardly to me that she didn't even let Darlington look even a little fucked up! Gritty realism comes second in these books, Feeding Thirst is the top priority, at the expense of everything else.

4. Hellquest

I hate HellQuest so much it’s unreal. I was a defender of the first book from people who called it “boring” but even I have to admit this shit drags. The whole novel is just a series of failed rituals we have to hear about in excruciating detail to get free Darlington from hell and you can really feel the book treading water for the majority of the page length. After failed rituals a big fuss is made about finding murderers to walk the gauntlet to enter hell and it’s a whole big thing with so much page space dedicated to it, and it fails like all the rituals before it. Darlington’s soul isn’t freed until 400 pages in, when he tells Alex that because of her special abilities she can literally just choose to enter hell herself without any rituals, and she does. It feels kind of audacious for Leigh Bardugo to waffle on for 400 pages about every step of this complicated ritual to get into hell and have the characters go through with the ritual and suffer and fail, only for that to be followed up “oh btw you could just step through this portal to hell any time you want because of your specialness” and having the protagonist just skip the several hundred page process by walking through a portal to solve the problem. Anyway after Darlington is freed HellQuest isn’t over because they have to go back AGAIN for plot reasons, but they need all four to go and only Alex can fast travel so we have to watch them walk the gauntlet AGAIN. And then! And then! The cliffhanger at the end! Is that hell is still open! And they have to do HellQuest AGAIN in the third book!!!!!!!!!!! What The Fuck! What The Fuck! I HATE HellQuest! It’s So BORING!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Anyway I didn’t think Hell Bent was very good lol
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