Thursday, 16 February 2023

CBR15 Book 9: "Hell Bent" by Leigh Bardugo

Page count: 484 pages
Rating: 4 stars

This is the second book in the Alex Stern series. This review will contain some spoilers for the first book in the series, Ninth House because I'm not sure how to review it without referencing things that happened in the last book. So if you're new to this series, start there. 

Darlington is still missing, "in Spain" to those not in the know, and in Hell, possibly dead to those initiated in the secrets of Lethe House. Galaxy "Alex" Stern doesn't have a lot of friends, and she's not going to let anything or anyone stop her from finding a way to rescue Darlington. Thankfully, her fellow Lethe member, Pamela Dawes is firmly on board with the plan, even when the higher-ups in Lethe forbid them from trying. Of course, finding a portal into hell isn't going to be easy and they have no guarantee that they're going to succeed in bringing Darlington back. 

In addition, a blast from Alex' past is making things complicated for her. Her dead boyfriend's former drug dealer boss has figured out what Alex did before she ended up in hospital and later at Yale, and unless Alex agrees to do some work for him, he's going to kill her mother. There's also a series of mysterious murders on campus, which may or may not be magical in nature. Alex and Turner try to figure out the cause and the culprit, but begin to fear that the murders are connected to the dark presence at Black Elm, Darlington's family home, and the bigger challenge of retrieving him from Hell.

I re-read Ninth House in preparation for this and am very glad that I did. Otherwise,  I would never have remembered all the intricacies of the magical houses of Yale and all the bad stuff that Alex suffered before becoming a student there. After the dramatic finale of the previous book, Alex is aware that she can do much more than see ghosts. She can hear them, almost constantly, and she can pull them into herself to gain almost superhuman strength for a while. That makes her more confident, but she nevertheless faces some pretty steep challenges in this book, the least of which is passing her classes at Yale. 

Alex has clearly been a loner for much of her life, and the only true friend she's had so far died in horrific and tragic circumstances. So learning to depend on others and finding people she can trust is very unfamiliar to her, and it was great to see that over the course of this book, she finds some true friends and allies, and is much better prepared for whatever challenges the next book is going to throw at her. After all the danger in the previous book, Alex and Dawes are now firm friends and completely united in the rather mad and dangerous quest of rescuing Darlington from Hell. Once they discover that to open the portal to Hell that is hidden on the Yale campus, they need to recruit some extra help, and the cranky Turner and happy-go-lucky Tripp Helmuth also join their band of unlikely allies. The final member of their little band is Mercy, Alex' roommate, who in many ways seems a lot more suitable to be Virgil of Lethe than Alex ever was. She is fascinated and intrigued to discover that magic exists. 

This book doesn't just have a creepy cover, it has certain scenes that were almost too close for comfort for me. I really don't like horror, and certain sections of this book were uncomfortably over the edge in that genre. Still, I made it through and am glad I persevered, because this book was a thrill ride. The previous book took me longer to get into, and I wasn't really sure about Alex and Darlington as characters. With all the world-building setup and major characterisation sorted out in the first volume, this could just pick up and get right into the action. It was a much quicker read than Ninth House, but got so intense in places that I had to put it down and read some other stuff in between just to not be overwhelmed. 

As with the previous book, this one ends on a cliffhanger. I found the one at the end of this one slightly less frustrating, however, and will happily wait the extra year or so to find out how Alex' supernatural adventures continue. 

Judging a book by its cover: This is a book cover with a sinister aura. The poor bunny can't help being albino, but there's something about the big, seemingly naked ears, the red eyes, and the very pink paws that just screams creepy. Well done, publishers, I'm immediately on my guard. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

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