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.
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?
Regency romance gets both a fantasy and a feminist twist in C.L. Polk’s The Midnight Bargain. Beatrice Clayborn’s family has fallen on hard times and, as a final, last-gasp strategy for recouping the family fortunes and position, has spent money they don’t really have to rent a reasonably townhome in a good part of town, buy fashionable outfits for Beatrice (making her younger sister Harriet envious), and otherwise get Beatrice ready for the Bargaining Season, when the country’s gentry gather to make matches.
Despite her family’s strained finances, Beatrice is an attractive marriage prospect because of her strong magical abilities. The catch: As soon as she is married, she’ll have a metal collar locked around her neck that nullifies her magic, and it will be kept on her until her childbearing years are over, with her husband holding the only key, because the spirits attracted by magic are so extremely dangerous to unborn fetuses. The prospect appalls Beatrice: she’d much rather give up marriage and become a full-fledged mage.
When Beatrice lucks upon a grimoire that could hold the key to her future, she loses it to a rival young woman magician, Ysbeta Lavan, who has far more wealth and social status. As the two sorceresses face off, Beatrice seeks the help of a spirit to get the book back from Ysbeta. Part of the spirit’s price for helping is experiencing a kiss while sharing Beatrice’s body … and hey, there’s Ysbeta’s handsome and kind brother Ianthe. Attraction strikes like lightning, as it usually does in Regency romances, and Beatrice is soon faced with a seemingly-impossible choice between love and her family’s well-being, on the one hand, and her deeply desired destiny as an independent woman and mage, on the other.
Polk hits the subjugated women and oppressive patriarchy angles hard in The Midnight Bargain. Beatrice’s 15-year-old sister Harriet argues eloquently for the charms of a social season, lovely clothing, and “proper” behavior, but it’s abundantly clear that Beatrice is never going to be happy fitting into a highborn woman’s typical place in this society. Almost none of the men in her world — and in fact, very few women, for that matter — have sympathy for Beatrice’s dilemma and desires to be a practicing mage rather than a wife and mother. And as Beatrice makes a series of reckless and sometimes ill-thought-out choices, aided and abetted by Ysbeta, it was hard for me to sympathize with her as much as I wanted to.
The social themes in this novel are on the heavy-handed side, but there’s a strong scene toward the end between Beatrice and her mother, who wants to prepare her for the shock of wearing the magic-suppressing collar, that humanized her mother greatly and helped to clarify the awfulness of what married women are forced to do in this society. With all the angst of the plot, it was a bit of a shock to hit the last few chapters, when Polk waves the author wand and everything and everyone (at least, everyone important) suddenly and rather dubiously fall into place for a happily-ever-after ending.