HELL BENT, by Leigh Bardugo
Searching for a portal to the underworld at Yale University, the magically inclined characters of Leigh Bardugo’s “Hell Bent” naturally think of Sterling Memorial Library, a Gothic temple to learning (and to hell, it turns out) that looms in the middle of campus. It is here that they plan to carry out a daring mission and rescue their friend Darlington, whose soul was sucked into the abyss in Bardugo’s previous book, the best-selling “Ninth House,” and whose body is now inhabited by a particularly nasty demon.
Just like its predecessor, this novel conjures a Yale swirling with all manner of magic — by turns frivolous, self-enriching, reckless, amusing and very dark indeed. Much of it is concentrated in the university’s real-life senior societies, whose fictional versions each traffic in a single arcane magical specialty. (Skull and Bones, for instance, uses human entrails to make stock market predictions for influential alumni; St. Elmo conjures storms; Book and Snake can reanimate the dead.) A shadowy regulatory body known as Lethe presides over the societies’ supernatural rituals and polices their use of magic, like a fantastical version of OSHA.
It’s not mandatory to read “Ninth House” to enjoy “Hell Bent,” but readers who start here will miss out on crucial back stories and world-building details. This book opens where the last one ended, with Darlington stuck in hell and Alex Stern, a scrappy, troubled Yale undergraduate who is blessed, or cursed, with the ability to see dead people, intent on getting him out. It’s a tough job, involving baroque rituals, exotic magical artifacts and a willingness to leap into the unknown — and it can be carried out only by people who have been responsible for the deaths of others.
It takes some time to get this plotline underway. The first section of “Hell Bent” feels a bit raggedy and frantic, with murders, drug deals and a vampiric encounter, among other things, though the details that accrue will be relevant later. But once the ritual commences, the book seizes you by the shoulders and won’t let you go. (The scene where Alex inhabits the minds of each character as they relive the deaths they caused is thrilling, a tour de force of suspenseful pacing and empathetic writing.) For me, it was a race between which would give out first: my burning desire to see what happened next, or my deep need for sleep at 3 a.m.
Bardugo is best known for her wildly popular young-adult novels; this series is her first for adults, and should bring in new readers hungry for the sort of stories that enthralled them when they were haunting their school libraries, begging for more books in the vein of Narnia or Harry Potter.
Fantasy is not for everyone, and to love this book, which I did, you have to let yourself be carried along by the joy and playfulness mixed with the darkness. A library where the ledger that finds the books you want contains “faint screams” and a “puff of brimstone” because its last user was researching the underworld; magic that went awry in 1957, leading two students to be “lost for over a week in shadow”; a Monopoly-like board game with dice made of bones that are “most likely human”; an emotionally sensitive house that takes its time to decide whether it likes you — all these are a delight.
The characters in these books are forever pondering the allure and disillusionment of magic and what to do when childhood dreams are crushed by adult reality.
“Why raise children on the promise of magic?” Alex wonders. “Why create a want in them that can never be satisfied — for revelation, for transformation — and then set them adrift in a bleak, pragmatic world?” The beauty of “Hell Bent” is that for all the bleakness, the sense of wonder somehow still remains.
HELL BENT | By Leigh Bardugo | 496 pp. | Flatiron | $29.99