The Midnight Bargain: A charming frolic of a book, barbed with social commentary

The Midnight Bargain by C.L. Polk science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsThe Midnight Bargain by C.L. PolkThe Midnight Bargain by C.L. Polk 

By the bottom of the second full page of text, when the protagonist of The Midnight Bargain (2020) walked into Harriman’s Bookshop, I was hooked. When Beatrice Clayborn entered the second-hand shop and I saw it through her eyes, the book claimed me, not unlike the way a spirit might claim a sorceress in Beatrice’s magical world.

It’s bargaining season, or marriage season in Beatrice’s world, and young women of the upper classes, like Beatrice, jostle and compete for the hand of a suitable husband. Suitability is decided by their fathers, of course, and usually determined based on wealth, status and influence.

Beatrice loathes the bargaining season. She wants to study magic and become a full-blown Mage, a path closed to women, especially upper-class women. Instead of being able to pursue their talents, magical women are even more in demand as spouses — for the magical male children they will bear. After marriage, a “warding collar” is locked around their necks, which cuts them off from any magic, and the collar stays on until they reach menopause. Then it is removed, and some women choose to study magic at that time. Even then the magic of the Chapterhouse, with its own language and rituals, is denied to women in Beatrice’s actively sexist, patriarchal society. Although Beatrice is poor and her connection to the upper class is through her mother only, her magical ability still shines, and she is in demand, as she says, for her womb.”

While she is in that bookshop, Beatrice encounters a Llanandari woman named Ysbeta, and a moment later Ysbeta’s brother Ianthe. Ysbeta and Ianthe are from a country whose attitude toward sorceresses is slightly more enlightened, but only slightly. Like Beatrice, Ysbeta flees an arranged marriage, and the two women discover a disguised grimoire at the same moment. Social mores dictate that Beatrice give way to Ysbeta, who is ruthless in her determination, but Ianthe brokers a compromise. The two will share the book, he suggests. Reluctantly Beatrice agrees, thus throwing her fortunes in with the siblings, who, while they come from wealth and power, often feel just as restricted and hemmed in as Beatrice does.

Ysbeta has a clear goal for her life: to discover and share magic. Besides loving learning for its own sake, Ysbeta is asexual, and wealthy in her own right, so the bargaining season offers her literally nothing. As she and Beatrice begin to search for the women who have written grimoires and disguised them as other books, both women begin to question whether they are the only ones who are reluctant to marry.

C.L. Polk

C.L. Polk

The story addresses serious issues — female autonomy, power and responsibility — while managing, a lot of the time, to be a light, frothy, slightly comic marriage-market story. From wit to banter to outright slapstick, the story follows Beatrice as she is forced into one unwelcome social setting after another, and things get even wilder when she conjures a minor spirit of fortune, who rides along in her in exchange for good luck. Nadi, as the spirit is called, has the social acuity of a three-year-old, and is a pure delight, demanding “more cake” and “kiss him!” as it thirsts for physical sensations and experiences.

Ysbeta is only slightly easier to reason with, a person whose determination and stubbornness border on the self-destructive. It isn’t until close to the end of the book that I truly understood Ysbeta’s motivations. Ianthe is willing to listen to Beatrice when she forgets herself and clearly, angrily articulates the fears and frustrations of a gifted sorceress who will be forced to give up the thing that puts light into her life, but he doesn’t understand at first. Beatrice’s father is bad at investments, but his hidebound attitudes mean he won’t listen to his intelligent, gifted daughter.

C.L. Polk plays fair with the issues, which adds to the tension, because the dangers of a pregnant woman practicing magic are real. A spirit will possess an unborn child, stopping the development of the child’s soul. That puts everyone around it in danger. However, as Beatrice points out, no one has ever looked for any other solution beyond banning women from practice, and no one really knows what causes the possession.

Beatrice’s need to marry well (her father, close to bankruptcy, has mortgaged the family home to pay for the Season) is in real conflict with her need to be herself. To fail and remain unmarried will reduce any chance of her younger sister Harriet having the Season she needs and desires. As her feelings for Ianthe grow stronger, and the parade of unsuitable men narrows down to the worst, the detestable Danton Maisonette, the stakes seem high. For me, they were still a bit abstract, until a harrowing passage where Beatrice’s sympathetic but socially powerless mother shares something with Beatrice that is usually not shared until the wedding ceremony itself. That brief passage was emotionally devastating and made it clear exactly what women are giving up — or having taken from them.

I loved Beatrice’s relationship with the fractious and powerful Nadi. I liked the brother and sister and their amiable sparring. Ianthe is the perfect romantic hero. The “secret” of the ritual Beatrice seeks to perform is perfectly foreshadowed. If anything, after a terrifying scene in her father’s study, I thought the climax came just a bit too easily, and the “solution” to the larger problem arrives conveniently from offstage. To be fair, Ysbeta has managed to prepare us for it. I didn’t want the book to go on too much longer, and I’ll be the first to admit I loved Beatrice’s final address to the male mages of the Chapterhouse.

Emotionally, in a few places I thought things happened very easily. Harriet betrays Beatrice in a big way. Beatrice never confronts her, just forgives her. The reason The Midnight Bargain gets 4.5 stars instead of five comes straight from a plot point left unresolved. Beatrice’s father binds her to an unsuitable man, yet, but he is more than that. Without creating spoilers, Beatrice’s father knows that the suitor has done something violently criminal, and still ties Beatrice to him. Beatrice never confronts her father about this, just forgives him too. I thought this was a hole in an otherwise tightly woven story.

You don’t have to love Jane Austen to love this book. You don’t have to love fashion to love this book either, but if you love either of those two things, and you read fantasy, you’re really going to enjoy The Midnight Bargain. From the 21st century, we look back a bit indulgently at Austen as if those were fluffy romances, but for the women of that class, marriage was deadly serious. Similarly, here, marriage and its consequences are serious for both Beatrice and Ysbeta. This charming frolic of a book is barbed with social commentary about who owns power and who wields it, and by the end, both Ysbeta and Beatrice face a serious question. When you change the world, do you change it for more than just yourself?

Published in October 2020. From the beloved World Fantasy Award-winning author of Witchmark comes a sweeping, romantic new fantasy set in a world reminiscent of Regency England, where women’s magic is taken from them when they marry. A sorceress must balance her desire to become the first great female magician against her duty to her family. Beatrice Clayborn is a sorceress who practices magic in secret, terrified of the day she will be locked into a marital collar that will cut off her powers to protect her unborn children. She dreams of becoming a full-fledged Magus and pursuing magic as her calling as men do, but her family has staked everything to equip her for Bargaining Season, when young men and women of means descend upon the city to negotiate the best marriages. The Clayborns are in severe debt, and only she can save them, by securing an advantageous match before their creditors come calling. In a stroke of luck, Beatrice finds a grimoire that contains the key to becoming a Magus, but before she can purchase it, a rival sorceress swindles the book right out of her hands. Beatrice summons a spirit to help her get it back, but her new ally exacts a price: Beatrice’s first kiss . . . with her adversary’s brother, the handsome, compassionate, and fabulously wealthy Ianthe Lavan. The more Beatrice is entangled with the Lavan siblings, the harder her decision becomes: If she casts the spell to become a Magus, she will devastate her family and lose the only man to ever see her for who she is; but if she marries—even for love—she will sacrifice her magic, her identity, and her dreams. But how can she choose just one, knowing she will forever regret the path not taken?

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Marion Deeds, with us since March, 2011, is the author of the fantasy novella ALUMINUM LEAVES. Her short fiction has appeared in the anthologies BEYOND THE STARS, THE WAND THAT ROCKS THE CRADLE, STRANGE CALIFORNIA, and in Podcastle, The Noyo River Review, Daily Science Fiction and Flash Fiction Online. She’s retired from 35 years in county government, and spends some of her free time volunteering at a second-hand bookstore in her home town. You can read her blog at deedsandwords.com, and follow her on Twitter: @mariond_d.

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