A Lot or a Little?
What you will—and won't—find in this book.
Numerous references to poetry and poets, Shakespeare, and mythology (Greek and Egyptian). Nicknames for main characters are Dante and Virgil. Many real facts about New Haven, Connecticut, and the Yale campus mixed in with the magical. In the Acknowledgements, the author points out that "every inscription and piece of decoration described at Yale, in New Haven, and Sterling Memorial Library is real." She's quite academic about her demon lore as well, which comes up frequently, noting that she consulted the anthology Visions of Heaven & Hell before Dante, edited by Eileen Gardiner. Details on the regicide of Charles I of England. Biblical text referenced, especially from Judges and Isaiah. Brief mention of the Underground Railroad.
Hopelessness blocks out all else -- ambition, drive, desire – and there's nothing more dangerous to your well-being than giving in to it. The importance of friendship and loyalty, though loyalty isn't always a positive thing when the actions to protect a few people put many others in danger. Finding the line between obeying authority and deciding for oneself what makes people, rules, and traditions worth heeding.
Positive Role Models
Alex's philosophy is summed up in Chapter 6: "Protect your own. Pay your debts. There was no other way to live, not if you wanted to live right." Her fierce loyalty to a few endangers many, but as she grows in confidence and strength, it's easy to believe she will do what has to be done to save not just her friends but the whole town of New Haven. She's averse to just about all authority, but sometimes for good reason. Those who are supposed to be advising her are either corrupt or sexist and condescending. She finds a mentor of sorts in Detective Turner, who helps her question any rash decisions she makes.
Alex doesn't know everything about her heritage but describes herself as "brown" and Jewish and possibly part-Mexican. Detective Turner is Black and Mercy is Asian American. References to adversity faced by Black people in the history of New Haven. Turner faces discrimination and hazing on the police force. An elderly professor confesses to Alex that he wishes "the fairer sex" were still excluded from the school. It's clear the elite secret societies are set up for White kids with lots of privilege and the series expends plenty of energy dissecting this privilege.
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Violence & Scariness
Multiple deaths attributed to demon activity. Some people found with hearts ripped out, another person found as a husk after being devoured, another found dead in the trunk of a car. References to some jarring sexual violence witnessed in the past and references to a character's sexual assault in Book 1. Rituals with bloodletting and near-death experiences. A corpse is reanimated for a magic ritual with mentions of other rituals using and mutilating corpses. Characters relive moments in their lives when they killed, either in defense or revenge, or to save themselves from corrupt or cruel people, or all of the above. A pet rabbit is found mutilated after a dog attacked it, and is heavily mourned. Attacks by demons with injuries, both physical and psychological.
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Sex, Romance & Nudity
Lots of mostly nonsexual nudity, though the nude individual has an erect penis. Sexual innuendo and a mention that Alex slept with her drug-dealer boyfriend at age 14.
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There's everything here and large helpings of it, especially sexually charged language like "f--k," "bitch," and "p---y."
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Products & Purchases
Mentions of foods like Pop-Tarts and other brands. Repeated mentions of Mercedes.
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking
Drugs and drug dealing in main character's past with mentions of her being high in early teens and a best friend overdosing on fentanyl. At Yale, mentions of drinking at parties and a Halloween event called "Liquor Treat." At meals and gatherings with college students and staff, some drinking of hard liquor. Alex takes a magical upper when she's tired.
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Parents Need to Know
Parents need to know that Hell Bent: Alex Stern, Book 2, is a sequel to Ninth House, the second book for adults by popular young adult fantasy author Leigh Bardugo (The Grisha Trilogy, Six of Crows, Wonder Woman: Warbringer). Her teen fans will know about it -- it's marketed to them as well -- and it hit the bestseller list in a hurry when it came out. If you have an older, mature teen reader already well versed in R movies steeped in mature content, this may be OK for them. It may be an especially good fit for a teen on their way to college. Hidden among the nasty magic rituals and dangerous jaunts to hellish realms (both resulting in quite a body count) there are tales of college life, from the diverse people you meet there to the many decisions to be made about where you fit and who you want to be. If this is not right for your teen just yet, try the similarly themed Truly Devious and Shades of London series, both a bit tamer, and both by Maureen Johnson.
Is It Any Good?
This sequel is an intense thriller, a wild ride filled with hellish realms, grisly rituals, murderers, demons, drug dealers, talking ghosts, and Yale's elite. And Alex Stern is in the center of it all, trying to run Lethe House (the gatekeeper organization for all of Yale's secret magical societies) while her mentor Darlington is, well, not in Spain like she keeps telling everyone. It's complicated. He's halfway trapped in a demon realm/halfway trapped in his house's own ballroom in a circle of protection, naked, sprouting horns and an erection. Is he more demon than man now? Can he be saved? Is there a ritual she can do in secret that will save Darlington and not destroy all of New Haven in the process?
Beyond the fascinating rituals -- maybe one too many -- there's a complex web of characters spinning around Alex. There are the shady advisors who tell her to stop looking for Darlington or get expelled. There are the drug dealers from her old life in California who won't leave her alone -- just one more job, now one more… There's Turner, the police detective who needs her advice on some murder cases that look suspicious, in a sinister kind of way. There's Dawes, the brains behind Lethe who clings to the safety of their rules until she can't anymore, not when Darlington is in trouble. There's her Yale roommate Mercy who doesn't understand why Alex is never home studying, until she decides to confide in her. The magic of the story is in distilling all of Alex's connections, adding heaps of New Haven history and Ivy League politics to the mix, and letting it all simmer. While the end result is something far more fantastical than expected -- think surprising new powers and adversaries -- it's a truly exciting ride to hell and back. And back again.
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