At the end of Ninth House, Galaxy “Alex” Stern solved the mystery of who killed Tara Hutchins and why, uncovering a conspiracy that involved some of the highest offices of Yale University and several of their “secret societies.” At the end of the novel, Darlington, Alex’s advisor in Lethe, the “ninth house” which oversees the magical practices of Yale’s secret societies, was still missing – presumably sent to hell as part of the cover-up of Tara’s murder. It was quite the freshman year for Alex Stern at Yale!
As Alex begins her sophomore year, she is determined to rescue Darlington and bring him back, in spite of being told repeatedly that he is irretrievable. But being told no has never stopped Alex once she sets her mind to something. She is going to save Darlington, even if it means going to hell herself and taking others with her.
In her second adult novel, and thirteenth novel overall, best-selling author Leigh Bardugo returns to Yale and its secret societies with a few brief sojourns in much darker realms. While Alex was able to solve Tara’s murder and reveal those responsible, Yale has no interest in exposing, or truly punishing, them. Yale is only interested in maintaining the “status quo” and the fiction that those in positions of power and privilege always act with the “greater good” In mind. This does not sit well with Alex’s sense of justice or her need to see Darlington retrieved from hell (literally).
Bardugo develops the character of Alex as she begins her new school term. The events of last year have changed her and her view of the world, revealing goodness in some people she could never have imagined and the wickedness, or worse, apathy, that she has always suspected was there, but never quite to the degree she has discovered. She is attempting to learn more about the abilities she has discovered in herself, and exploring how to incorporate them into her new responsibilities with Lethe. Those abilities, partnered with her unshakeable sense of survival make her a formidable opponent, but her inclination to charge into situations with little or no preparation still leave her vulnerable. While this has always been a problem for Alex in the past, at Yale she has backup.
Because of her ability to see the dead, Alex has rarely experienced normal relationships with those around her. At Yale, she has unwittingly created a new family for herself, each with qualities Alex lacks or ones that are complementary to her own. Some of its members are most unexpected and, having found it, Alex will protect it as ferociously as she pursues everything else.
Bardugo also further explores the system of magic created for Ninth House. It remains fascinating and terrifying. It is capricious and full of extremes: vague yet exacting, it is incredibly powerful and completely unreliable. And there is always a cost. And that cost is often much higher than the user ever anticipated. This often works to the users advantage, since the members of Yale’s secret society have shown repeatedly they will use the less fortunate to gain what they desire without hesitation.
Like its predecessor, Hell Bent is a page-turning novel that is terrifying, challenging, funny, and provocative. And the ending strongly implies that we haven’t seen the end of Galaxy Stern, and I’m sure readers will want to join her for her junior year.
Read an interview with the author here.