Skip to content
Answering Your Questions About Reactor: Right here.
Sign up for our weekly newsletter. Everything in one handy email.
When one looks in the box, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the cat.

A Dark Fantasy Popcorn Novel: Hell Bent by Leigh Bardugo

Reactor

Home / A Dark Fantasy Popcorn Novel: Hell Bent by Leigh Bardugo
Books book reviews

A Dark Fantasy Popcorn Novel: Hell Bent by Leigh Bardugo

By

Published on February 1, 2023

Now a sophomore at Yale, Galaxy “Alex” Sterns is desperate to yank Daniel Arlington, aka Darlington, out of Hell. Without getting into too much backstory, he was her supervisor at Lethe, basically the magic cops of Yale’s secret societies. Due to some very bad people doing very bad things, Alex’s boss-slash-crush got dragged over to the other side of the Veil. She and Dawes, Alex’s Lethe colleague, have spent months trying to get him back, but now they have a plan. It’s risky and will involve a lot of death, but of course Alex is going to attempt it anyway.

At the same time, the LA crimelord she escaped from is sniffing around New Haven. Eitan doesn’t understand how Alex can be so tough—she has the uncanny ability to pull ghosts into her body and use their physical strength—but he wants to use her as muscle to expand his empire. Eitan sends her into the nest of a creature so powerful that even Alex is left shaken by the encounter. But that’s not all. Someone is bumping off professors and using magic to do it. As the three plots intertwine, Alex finds herself trapped in the center of a tightening knot of chaos. Demons are on the loose, the bodies are piling up, and Darlington’s very soul is up for grabs.

Sometimes you’re so into the first book in a series that you set your expectations for the sequel so impossibly high that there’s no way it can hit that mark. I’m generally pretty good at managing my expectations for books I’m reading as a critic, but occasionally there are stories that hit me at the right time and in the right mood that I just can’t get over. However, put enough space between it and the sequel and one of two things will happen: either I’ll get bored and forget about the series or that awe will compound so that by the time the sequel finally does come out my feelings toward the first are even higher than they were when I read it. Both situations lead to the same result for me. It’s like suddenly only being able to see how the magician does her trick instead of being enamored by the trick itself. And this is where I found myself with the second book in Leigh Bardugo’s Alex Stern series, Hell Bent.

Buy the Book

Hell Bent
Hell Bent

Hell Bent

Three and a half years have passed for readers since Ninth House. Add a pandemic and it feels like a decade. In that time, I’ve figured out I’m genderqueer, I’ve won two awards for my work as a critic, I’ve gotten 5 jobs, quit 2, and gotten an overdue promotion. I’ve moved 3 times, once all the way to the other end of the state. I’ve lost old friends, gained new ones, and rekindled distant ones. I’ve read so much incredible fiction from BIPOC and queer/trans authors, stories that have broken my mind and reshaped how I see the world. I’m not an entirely different person now, but I’ve changed enough that my reading tastes have as well. The books that struck me in 2019 wouldn’t necessarily strike me now. Which brings me back to Bardugo.

At the time I read it, I felt like Ninth House had Things To Say. It’s not that what Bardugo was saying about power, the patriarchy, poverty, and trauma had never been said before or that she sometimes didn’t stumble in the telling. However, she framed it with a brutal twist of magic and an edge sharp enough to cut that I couldn’t help but be entranced. Hell Bent is a great “hell heist”, as one of the characters puts it, but it doesn’t have anything meaningful to say about anything. Alex and the others touch on grief and fighting back against one’s abusers, but these are personal demons not systemic oppressions. Where Ninth House had a thesis statement, Hell Bent comes off more like a popcorn movie. Ninth House is an investigative blog post while Hell Bent is a viral TikTok. Or, at least, that’s how it feels to me as a reader in 2023.

Even though it didn’t scratch the same itch the first book did, Hell Bent is an entertaining novel that I generally enjoyed. As a dark fantasy, it’s fun and frightening in equal measure. The worldbuilding is spectacular and the characters are all kinds of intriguing. There are several moments that come off as less “troubled characters making questionable choices” and more “plot device,” but overall the plot was compelling enough to make the book hard to put down. I loved the way Bardugo interpreted demons and Hell, and her alternate history take on Yale and New Haven was just as thrilling. And that cliffhanger!

That said, there were two elements of the book’s structure that I really struggled with, one is character-related and the other is an issue I’ve had with all of Leigh Bardugo’s stories. First, Darlington. Although the entire novel revolves around getting Darlington back, the man himself was my least favorite part. Darlington had been out of my life so long that I’d completely forgotten his personality and cadence. Frankly, I found him exceedingly annoying. In the late 90s and early 00s, seemingly every character in a TV fantasy drama aimed at teens and twentysomethings spoke in that Joss Whedon way of being quirkily verbose and dripping with sarcasm. That’s what I kept thinking of with Darlington. What I accepted as somewhat charming in 2019 had me rolling my eyes in 2023. I found myself skipping over his scenes and having to go back and force myself to read them. If I never hear about his “glowstick” penis again, it will be too soon.

The second element bothered me a lot more this time around than before. I don’t read many books by white authors with bi/multiracial protagonists because those stories rarely feel true or realistic to me. I’m biracial (Black and white), so it’s personal for me. Too often a white author will write a biracial character as if they’re just a white person with “exotic” features or a tan. The character’s proximity to whiteness overwhelms everything else about them. They have little connection to their non-white culture or heritage except for here and there someone mentioning something recognizable or obvious (in the case of Hell Bent, Alex is called “mija” a couple times).

Besides this series, my only other experience with Bardugo was the Shadow and Bone television show and Six of Crows, both of which I found entertaining but extremely frustrating when it came to race and racism. Even with Ninth House I had problems. From what I can tell, she is an author who is both heavy handed and too superficial. For example, the crew find a magical device that will help them find Darlington that was historically used to track down self-liberated formerly enslaved Africans. Turner, who is Black (he’s a freaking cop, because of course he is, white writers love putting Black characters in authoritative positions without thinking about the context), suggests destroying the thing, but Alex and a white student decide to use the device anyway. They make no promises to destroy it and seem to feel little if any guilt in the act. There’s a surface-level acknowledgement of why Turner loathes the device, but no recognition of the system-wide problems that it is indicative of or vow for restitution and reparative work in the future. Basically, it’s using Black pain for the benefit of a rich cishet white man.

Without even knowing who the author was, it would be immediately apparent that a white person wrote this book. The characters of color lack an awareness, a sense of lived experience, an understanding of how they sit inside and outside of their community. What is it like being a biracial Latina at an ivy league? This series not only doesn’t have an answer but hasn’t even asked the question. A case could be made that some of the narrative elements around Alex venture too far into stereotyping and may even cross the line into racist. I’m not Latinx so I don’t want to make that call. Overall, the way Bardugo handled race and racism was not something I cared for.

Do I wish Hell Bent gave me the same feels as Ninth House? Well yeah, of course. Is it still worth reading? If you’re a fan of Leigh Bardugo, dark fantasy, and watching rich assholes get torn apart, then yeah, might as well pick it up. Set your expectations accordingly, and you’ll probably have a great time. But look too closely and all you’ll see are the dropped stitches and uneven seams.

Hell Bent is published by Flatiron Books.

Alex Brown is a Hugo-nominated and Ignyte award-winning critic who writes about speculative fiction, librarianship, and Black history. Find them on twitter (@QueenOfRats), instagram (@bookjockeyalex), and their blog (bookjockeyalex.com).

About the Author

About Author Mobile

Alex Brown

Author

Alex Brown is a Hugo-nominated and Ignyte award-winning critic who writes about speculative fiction, librarianship, and Black history. Find them on twitter (@QueenOfRats), bluesky (@bookjockeyalex), instagram (@bookjockeyalex), and their blog (bookjockeyalex.com).
Learn More About Alex
Subscribe
Notify of
guest
2 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments