by C.L. Polk
I received a free ARC from Netgalley for an honest review.
Midnight Bargain is the successful melding of magic and regency era classics reminiscent of Jane Austen novels. I hate when reviews use other books to describe it, but in this instance, I couldn’t help it. As a fan of Austen, I could not help but mark the social similarities: women looking for husbands, men looking for wives, annoying sisters, congregating at balls, social calls, and so on. But the women of Midnight Bargain have much more at stake. Those with magical abilities are collared when they marry, suppressing their powers so their unborn children may be protected from possession by spirits. For individuals with aspirations to become sorceresses like Beatrice Clayborn and Ysbeta Lavan, marriage is the equivalent of imprisonment; they can be released only if their husband so chooses. The choice before Beatrice is to choose between her family or her own desires, which is not much of a choice at all. If she marries well, she can relieve the family of their outstanding debt but the cost is her dream to become a mage. Despite this impossible decision, she believes a compromise can be had: become a mage then use these abilities to bring her family wealth. This is made more difficult when the Bargaining Season—a time when eligible women are put on display and forced to entertain potential suitors—brings Ianthe Lavan, who seems different from the men around her and captures her heart. Now it’s not only her family and her dreams but also love that is on the line.
ON THE CHARACTERS
The Midnight Bargain is an engaging read and was difficult to put down. This has much to do with Beatrice Clayborn as a smart, strong-willed main character. (But there are some decisions she makes that cause you to question just how smart she is because they do not make much sense. She doesn’t necessarily need to be infallible but these decisions just seem so foolish for someone like her.) Beatrice’s struggle for autonomy in a patriarchal system designed to oppress women, especially those with magical abilities, is one that can easily be identified with. The unfairness of a woman’s life is brought to the forefront when Beatrice states that “the device women have to wear for the safety of their children is an instrument of punishment to men in the chapterhouse.” In the same conversation, she questions the stigma surrounding unmarried women when unmarried men hardly face the same penalties. But, even Beatrice’s comments on the state of women in her world is nothing compared to a poignant conversation she has with her mother surrounding the dreaded collar. The cost of the collar is not just magic, but a woman’s spirit, the light in her is extinguished along with it. This is by far one of the most heartrending moments in the book.
The magic versus family dichotomy easily parallels the timeless struggle by women to balance having both a family and a career. Must we choose one or the other, or is it possible to have both? Maybe my own struggle with the familiar question is why the book affected me so much and why I immediately connected with Beatrice…and later Ysbeta as well. For some there can be a balance, while for others one choice is clear. This book can be viewed as a commentary on a woman’s role in society and the struggle to balance family and a career, but it doesn’t do more than scratch the surface. Despite this, the world Polk introduces us to does allow a lot more to be discussed on the matter. (Let me know, I’d love to discuss this some more.)
I particularly liked Beatrice’s relationship with Ysbeta. Where Beatrice is indecisive about which choice to make, Ysbeta is absolute in her search for knowledge and desire to remain unmarried. Initially they are presented as potential enemies, turn into allies, and become friends. Their interactions with one another contribute to each’s growth. While there were a few things that bothered me about Ysbeta, this is the one that likely topped it. For someone who does not desire a marriage partner, Ysbeta kept pressuring Beatrice to choose Ianthe when Beatrice had as much of a claim to refuse a potential proposal as Ysbeta did. It might be because Ianthe is her brother, but still…solidarity anyone?
Ianthe is not as developed a character as Beatrice and Ysbeta. He seems more like the token romantic interest–almost too perfect (and oh so dreamy). He is understanding, likes Beatrice for speaking her mind, and even agrees with her on some things about the patriarchy. He is so different from the males around Beatrice, making him seem unrealistic for the times, but this can also be explained by the relationship between his parents. It is largely due to his mom that the family business has flourished, and she is a much more authoritative figure in his life as opposed to his father. If he is understanding and much more “progressive,” then it is due to his upbringing–being Llanandari as opposed to being from Chasland (where the book is set). He at least seems to argue this anyway.
REFLECTING ON THE BOOK
While the attraction between Ianthe and Beatrice is nearly immediate, I have to say that it did not bother me as much. In other books, I’ve questioned how genuine feelings are after such a short courtship but I think this has much to do with understanding the setting (regency era and my partiality for Jane Austen novels) as well as Polk’s ability to evoke certain emotions through her writing. I was quite taken by her writing style within the first few pages. Being new to Polk’s work, the first thing I noticed was the purposeful word choices; the words are not wasted on the page. Rather than a horse-drawn carriage, it is the “fiacre” or “barouche” that characters are riding in, helping to place me in the time period. Her descriptions are particularly vivid. For instance, this one of Beatrice’s hair is memorable, “the peculiar, perpetually autumn-red tint of her frowzy, unruly hair.” Then there is the common “butterflies in the stomach” feeling elevated to “the butterflies burst into delirious flight.” If having butterflies is a familiar sign of falling in love, then what Polk evokes is better; it’s akin to a heart bursting, overcome with love’s euphoria.
The magic system Polk builds is an interesting one. Explanations of how magic operates are weaved throughout the book as opposed to being blocked off into a section and fed to the reader in the beginning. It contributes to the smooth flow of the book, but there were moments I was left wondering about some of the rules and how things worked. I would have liked to know more about the conjuring of spirits and categorization of those lesser versus greater spirits. And, this may be more customs as opposed to the magic system, but I’m not entirely sure who the Skyborn are. Who does everyone keep calling to and why?? I’m used to greater detail about magic so would have appreciated more explanation. I had to set aside some questions about the system and was able to enjoy the book much better after doing so.
Aside from Beatrice and Ysbeta’s interactions, I quite liked the relationship between Beatrice and Nadi, the chance spirit Beatrice conjures. Spirits crave the pleasures of the flesh: the taste of fruits, the feel of sand on toes, and even a first kiss. They must be restrained or else their desires can take over their host but they’re not necessarily all bad as they’re made out to be. I found Nadi’s childlike behavior and its curiosity amusing. I liked the evolution of their relationship that began from a bargain to one where they enjoyed each other’s company as friends. At one point, it is only Nadi that understands everything Beatrice is feeling, and it becomes protective of Beatrice. It is through their relationship that I learned most about the magic system. And, for some reason I want to refer to it as she/her. Reminding myself it has no sex/gender assigned to it has been difficult.
Things are tied up nicely–maybe a little too nicely–and I was unsure how I felt about that. There is so much more to this story and I would not hesitate to read more but the inclusion of an epilogue seems to dissuade this potential. But, one can still hope. (And, I’m serious. I will keep hoping.)
Midnight Bargain is a solid 4 stars for me. I’ve already started rereading it again to try to see if there is anything I may have missed. I am a serial rereader and this is one of the best compliments I can give a book. If you’re thinking about picking this up, be forewarned excitement is not present on every page. If that is what you’re looking for, then this book is likely not for you. On the other hand, if regency classics interest you and you are prepared to read it with a dose of magic, this might be something you will enjoy. I thoroughly did.
Thank you to the publisher and the author for providing me with this opportunity through Netgalley. All opinions are my own.