Fantasy is all about situating the reader in a compelling fictional world, but some worlds are more fictional than others. Some authors in the genre excel at putting fantasy first, creating new worlds so different from our own that they have their own geography, magic, culture, conventions, and language. Others sketch the outlines of a world that looks much like ours on the surface, then seamlessly weave fantastical elements throughout. Only a handful of impressive fantasy authors excel at both. Recent examples include Rebecca Roanhorse, N.K. Jemisin, Naomi Novik, and Samantha Shannon. You know you’re safe in their hands whether the fantasy is epic, urban, or otherwise.
Leigh Bardugo was already a breathtakingly successful fantasy writer before her first adult novel, Ninth House, was released in 2019. Her epic fantasy Grishaverse novels, starting with Shadow and Bone and kicking into high gear with Six of Crows, made her a YA household name. Ninth House was a major departure for Bardugo, leaving behind a folklore-inflected, war-torn fictional world inspired by tsarist Russia for a much more modern, grounded setting: Yale University, which Bardugo herself attended in the 1990s.
Despite its strong similarities to the Yale of reality, this Yale is a richly magical world. Its secret societies practice not just clandestine rituals, but everything from soothsaying to necromancy. Ninth House introduced us to Galaxy “Alex” Stern, a young woman whose damage and trauma run deep. Working for the “ninth house” of Lethe as a watchdog of sorts, supervising and reining in the magic practiced by Yale’s other eight houses, Stern won some battles and lost others. Now Bardugo returns to that setting for a sequel, Hell Bent, picking up where Ninth House left off. It’s a story well worth returning to, and Hell Bent is just as outrageously good as Ninth House, if not better.
Ninth House, like most fantasy novels kicking off a new series, bore a heavy load of exposition; Hell Bent benefits from the foundation its predecessor already laid. Alex and we both know she can see ghosts, called “Grays” here, and we spend less time exploring the peccadillos of each house. There are a handful of new characters, but most are welcome holdovers (Turner! Dawes! Michelle Alameddine!), further streamlining the narrative. The result is pretty much nonstop action, though the location of the action changes from Il Bastone to Black Oak to, well, Hell and back. Plus, there’s some grim California sunshine, and an intrusion from Alex’s old life that seems jarring but, of course, manages to tie back to the main action eventually. The action also skips around in time, to the point where it’s easier to just let it all wash over you, rather than try to measure out exactly how many days or weeks have passed between specific events. This mystery runs on vibes, and the vibes are unparalleled.
The title is also a manifesto. Ninth House left us on the cliffhanger that Lethe’s presumed-dead golden boy Darlington was likely not exactly dead after all, but instead trapped in the underworld by a demon. In Hell Bent, Alex intends, at all costs, to get Darlington back. No surprise, there’s a ritual involved, which Alex and her allies dig up from research materials and old stories. Traveling to Hell on the Yale campus requires a team of four murderers; given the company Alex keeps, rounding out the team proves not too much of a challenge. The revelations of how certain team members earned their “murder” badge are pleasantly twisty, nicely balancing character work with the tense, propulsive action scenes we’ve come to expect from Bardugo. All the while, Alex remains on edge, bucking authority, lying to the powerful, trying to sort allies from enemies, and exploring the limits of her own powers as she uses the strength of nearby Grays to break her out of more than one tight spot. Alex inhabits a world in which the strong constantly exploit the weak and gruesome violence is right around every corner, but it’s not a bad place to spend time.
There’s much to love here and very little to dislike. Occasionally, there’s a detail that feels like the work of a writer celebrating her freedom from the restrictions of writing for a young adult audience; if there was a reason for a particular supernatural character to sport a glowing erection, I must have missed it. But analytical fantasy readers, breathless fangirls, and those of us who fit both categories (eeeeee Darlington!) will happily follow Alex into Hell. Her adventures there are satisfying enough to make us glad the wait for book two is over—and hopeful that we won’t have to wait long for book three.
By Leigh Bardugo
Published January 10, 2023