Edwardian England. Agnes Ashford knows that her duty is threefold: she needs to work on cataloguing the archive of the titled Bryant family, she needs to keep the wounds of her past tightly under wraps, and she needs to be quietly grateful to her employers for taking her up in her hour of need. However, a dark secret she uncovers due to her work thrusts her into the Bryants’ brilliant orbit – and into the clutch of their ambitions.
They are prepared to take the new century head-on and fight for their preeminent position and political survival tooth and nail – and not just to the first blood. With a mix of loyalty, competence, and well-judged silence Agnes rises to the position of a right-hand woman to the family matriarch – the cunning and glamorous Lady Helen. But Lady Helen’s plans to hold on to power through her son are as bold as they are cynical, and one day Agnes is going to face an impossible choice…
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Annabel Fielding, having graduated from the University of Arts London with an MA in Public Relations, is a PR assistant by day and a novelist by night. Being a self-professed history geek, she dedicates her free time to obscure biographies, solo travel and tea. Her special areas of interest are Edwardian age and Late Middle Agnes/Renaissance, but sometimes veers into other directions, too, when distracted by a shiny thing. She is the author of A Pearl for My Mistress (2017).
**I was provided a copy of the book by the author through NetGalley as a Tour Participant. I voluntarily read and reviewed it. All opinions are my own.**
Lying with Lions is not the typical book I read but on occasion I am willing to venture out and try new genres. I found an intricate character-driven plot and knew immediately this was my type of movie as opposed to my type of book. As I read, the thought that I would enjoy this on the big screen accompanied was often on my mind.
The story is written in present tense, which was a bit jarring at first. Eventually I settled into it along with the feeling that I was watching the events unfold as an omniscient narrator allowed me a glimpse into the machinations of high society through Agnes. From a humble background, Agnes is hired by the Bryant family to serve as their archivist to compile and organize the family history. Eventually she becomes more than just a bystander, becoming Lady Bryant’s secretary. Rather than an observer, she becomes a willing participant in the political maneuvers of those she comes to be associated with.
Agnes was often an enigma to me, making it hard to figure out her motives. Is she being genuine? Does she have something planned? Is she a “good” person? Part of me wanted to skip to the end because I wanted to know the why behind Agnes’s actions. My urge to spoil the ending was further spurred on by the novel’s slow build. It was not until about a fifth of the way when the pieces started to fall into place, and I recognized with some amount of certainty where the book was heading. The pace was slow, but it was the deliberate kind that encourages readers to be immersed in the plot and observe as well as question the decisions of characters, what will those in power do to remain in power? I had to exercise a fair amount of self-control but the ending was worth it as revelations are made.
by Stacey Lee ASIN/ISBN: 9780606383912 Publication: March 17,2015
Under A Painted Sky is Lee’s debut novel. I’m a few years behind, but it could have been worse. I might have missed it altogether. It’s a stunning debut that immediately hooked me from the first line: “They say death aims only once and never misses, but I doubt Ty Yorkshire thought it would strike a scrubbing brush.“ This harrowing tale of the long and dangerous trek west on the Oregon Trail is told through Samantha, a young Chinese girl who accidentally kills a man in self-defense. Although only trying to protect herself, she knows she will be charged with murder simply because the law will not take the side of a Chinese girl. Samantha is rescued by Annamae, a slave who seizes the opportunity to pursue her freedom, and together they flee west disguised as young men, Sam and Andy. En route to their destinations, they’re joined by cowboys Cay, West, and Peety, individuals also fleeing from circumstances of their own.
Lee is able to convey the harsh realities of the Oregon Trail from stampedes to the threat of bandits on the loose, but she provides a more nuanced tale by having the main character be Chinese American, someone born in the U.S. yet still viewed as perpetually foreign. Utilizing a person of color as the main character provides a different perspective of the world during this period. Anti-Asian sentiment is featured prominently in the story beginning with the predicament Sam finds herself in and the all-around vitriol environment from the use of racial slurs to how she is generally treated. One of the more pivotal moments strikes when Sam appears on a wanted poster except the picture isn’t her at all, feeding into the stereotype that all Asians look alike. Lee also captures the U.S.’s racist history through Andy’s stories about her siblings, which are heartbreaking as she relates them to Sam.
Sam and Andy’s relationship is the highlight of this story.They start as strangers thrown together by extenuating circumstances and are forced to trust one another. This shared experience forces them to bond with each other but eventually, it grows into something stronger. They look out for one another and inspire courage in each other. They begin to regard each other as more than friends; they begin to feel like sisters.
Found family is a heartwarming trope I love, and I especially enjoyed it here as Sam, Andy, and the trio of cowboys slowly worm their way into each other’s hearts. The conversations they have are often hilarious, and Cay’s antics provide much-welcomed comic relief. As their fondness for one another grows, Sam also develops a crush on one of the cowboys. Unexpectedly, I was gutted by the romance in this novel and was left upset for a few days. It wasn’t even a full-blown romance but more of an unrequited crush. I would reread some of the scenes over and try to make better sense of why it affected me so much but would come away slightly more devastated each time, repeatedly breaking my own heart. (I don’t understand why Lee did this to me!! Why???) I’m attributing it to having connected with Sam and the pain that comes with having a crush.
Overall, this was such a wonderful read centered around loss and friendship. I couldn’t put it down, and even after I finished reading it, I still didn’t want to. I just kept right on thinking about it. Stacey Lee is a phenomenal writer and reminded me why I used to adore historical fiction. If she is at the helm, I’ll be reading more books from this genre.
by Stacey Lee ASIN/ISBN: 9781524740986 Publication: May 4, 2021
Valora Luck has dreamt of reuniting with her twin Jamie since he ventured off on his own, leaving her to take care of their father. After finding out Jamie will be on board the Titanic, she stowaways on it, intent on convincing him that it’s time they pursue their lifelong dreams of becoming acrobats.
The fate of the Titanic is well known but not all survivors’ stories are. Lee centers the story around the relatively unknown fact there were Chinese passengers also on board the Titanic. She sets the tone of the novel with a simple line: “Of the eight Chinese passengers aboard the Titanic, six survived.” I went into the book with a wall built around my heart but cracks still formed to topple it down. Lee carves out a piece of history and makes it her own with a bittersweet tale.
With Lee at the helm, I should have known it was a lost cause to protect myself from the fates of the characters. Who was going to live? Who was going to die? I tried to stay as disconnected as I could, but still found myself drawn into Valora’s story as she tried to convince her brother to pursue their dreams while trying to escape notice of the crew as well as other passengers. I was still able to laugh and I cheer all the while knowing tragedy was only pages away. Then, I cried.
Valora is a dreamer like her father, chasing down her dream of becoming an acrobat. Smart and determined, she’s always prepared to make her own luck, refusing to allow fate to stand in her way. While I liked Valora and appreciated her daring nature, I was slightly irritated with her constantly pushing her brother to see things her way, insistent he drop everything for their childhood dreams too. Her unwillingness to see beyond her own desires and to to try to understand who Jamie is now prevented me from fully supporting her efforts. It’s always difficult when the person you remember is both the same and different from who they have become, and throughout the novel Valora struggles with this.
Like Lee’s other novels, there is a bit of romance sprinkled in but it doesn’t overpower the central story. It left a lasting impression that hit me harder than many romance novels I’ve read. I don’t know how Lee does it because I felt this way about most of the romances that appeared in her other books too. In this particular novel, it’s likely I felt this way because it only just scratches the surface of the potential relationship so the promise of what’s to come left me wanting more. There are additional subplots included that make the story interesting, each weaving well into the other and supporting the overall story rather than feeling disjointed.
As the Titanic’s demise neared, it was difficult to keep my anxiety at bay. I wasn’t sure what would happen to the characters. It was never a matter of whether Lee would stick close to history and allow only six Chinese passengers to survive even as I tried to convince myself she would find some way around it. I knew it was always going to be who would be part of the six. Luck of the Titanic demonstrates once again Lee’s ability to give faces and names to the past, connecting me with people and stories across time. She took me down a journey that only lasted a few hours but left me heartsick for days.
by Sarah MacLean ASN/ISBN: 9780062691996 Publication: June 30, 2020 Series: The Bareknuckle Bastards #3
I haven’t read the other books in the series, but it’s not necessary to read the prior books to understand Grace and Ewan’s friends-to-lovers-to-enemies-to-lovers romance. MacLean provides enough background to understand the events that lead up to Grace and Ewan meeting again. Grace is also known as Dahlia, but I’ll just refer to her by Grace here.
Grace created a kingdom with her brothers in Covent Garden, but she sits alone on her throne while her brothers have found love. While several men would willingly stand beside her, she’s never gotten over the boy who broke her heart. When he reappears, she attempts to get her revenge so she can finally move on and remove him from her life. Unfortunately for Grace, Ewan isn’t going to let her go so easily.
This book was everything I needed and more to get me back to reading romance novels. I reverted to rereading old and new favorites because I was unsuccessful in finding something new that I liked. Then, I read a mini-review at A Fox’s Wanderingsthat mentioned lots of groveling, and I said, “Yup! I need it in my life.” (I stand with Alienor at A Fox’s Wanderings as a lover of books with groveling heroes.) I read the review on March 30th, started it on the 31st, and finished reading it on April 1st. It was flipping fantastic! I smiled, I swooned, I had to set it down for a few minutes to breathe and settle my aching heart, and then I smiled some more, and I swooned some more.
I liked Grace. She was smart, kind, and a real badass. But even love will make fools of the most intelligent people. Despite multiple attempts by Grace to remove Ewan from her life, he continues to maintain a hold on her. He never pushes her more than she is willing to give. I appreciated his non-alpha character and the respect he had for her. Although Grace tries to stay away from Ewan, their connection is electric. When they’re together, there is always an undercurrent of passion sizzling beneath the glances they throw one another. The groveling was near perfection. It made the butterflies swarm, and my heart beat erratically.
The pull between Grace and Ewan and their constant longing for one another wouldn’t have been so fever-inducing had it not been for MacLean’s gift with the written word. MacLean skillfully seduced my emotions–I was in love, vengeful, hopeful, outraged…filled with regret. It was an aching wave of so many feelings in such a short amount of time. It was wonderful! (The evidence: here, here, and below)
However, as much as I enjoyed Daring and the Duke, I kept expecting just a bit more. A bit more revenge. A bit more plot. A bit more than just the romance. There were multiple opportunities to expand on interesting points, but they don’t pan out to very much. The book mentions parliamentary votes, conspiratorial women, and even raids, but it doesn’t really go beyond this. The description promises revenge, but I didn’t get the revenge I was hoping for. The only real revenge from Grace is at the beginning, while the rest of the book is more about their struggle to control their feelings and define what they might still be to each other. Also, I just really wanted Ewan to experience more pain for all the heartache he caused.
Fans of historical romance will enjoy Daring and the Duke, especially if a groveling lovelorn hero is sought after. There isn’t much outside of the romance, which doesn’t necessarily take anything away from it being an oh-so-satisfying read. If you’re looking for romance, this is certainly a book that will sweep you off your feet.
These are like the books with the pictures I grew up associating romance novels with. Set in some time period with a man, often a duke and often bare chested man, on the cover holding a woman in some salacious pose. But they’re also kind of not because there is diversity here. Someone, please loosen my corset and fan me because they’re pretty steamy.
The Duke Who Did Not (2020) by Courtney Milan ISBN: 9781937248710 Publication: September 22, 2020 Goodreads Summary Series: Wedgeford Trials #1
One liner: Woman who loves lists is enlisted by a man she likes to create a list of qualities of the woman he plans to marry.
This was a book that I really wanted to like a lot more than I actually did. I first read Milan’s Trade Me and did like it so wanted to pick up one of her more recent novels. It’s a very interesting premise, taking place in a village where Chinese immigrants reside. Chloe Fong is likeable and dedicated to her lists. She is much more serious in comparison to Jeremy Wentworth, whom she has a bit of a crush on though she tries to deny it. Jeremy Wentworth is normally my type of love interest in a novel (in real life…hehehe) because he’s funny, loves to tease, and always in a seemingly good mood but I found myself agree with Chloe that he just couldn’t seem to take anything seriously. I was irritated with him, especially because it took him forever to be honest with her about who he wanted his wife to be. I was a bit disappointed that the actual Wedgeford Trials, didn’t take a larger role in the book. I wanted to see the game play out. Overall, the writing is good but it felt overly long at times, likely due to my irritation with Jeremy Wentworth. I would still be interested in reading more from the Wedgeford Trials series though, especially with a different love interest.
The Governess Game (2020) by Tessa Dare ISBN: 9780062672124 Publication: August 28, 2018 Goodreads Summary Series: Girls Meets Duke #2
One liner: After the umpteenth governess quits, a duke decides to hire an unconventional governess to oversee his wards.
This book hit all the right spots and then some. I will definitely be reading more from Tessa Dare. Chase is a womanizer and Alex fixes clocks but finds herself in need of a job so becomes a governess despite lacking any experience. Her lack of experience actually makes her perfect for the job because she is willing to go about education the girls in a different way. I loved how she goes about it. Alex is perfect for Chase because she isn’t afraid of him, despite insistence that she doesn’t want to get involved with him. She ends up tearing down some of his defenses. It’s Rosamund and Daisy, the wards Chase basically inherits, that are the highlights of the novel. The number of funerals Chase, Alex, and Rosamund, and Daisy attend are hilarious! I love the makeshift family that forms out of this.
My Beautiful Enemy (2014) by Sherry Thomas ISBN: 9780425268896 Publication: August 5, 2014 Goodreads Summary Series: The Heart of Blade Duology #2
One liner: A thief and a spy, former lovers, meet again nearly a decade later.
This is an example of another book I wanted to love more than I did. It made me feel all the right things but it never pushed me over the edge. It was like putting on a harness and getting ready to bungee jump only to be told you don’t get to jump. That’s right, you’ll just get to look over the edge. The sense of longing was present, wishing Catherine and Captain Atwood could reunite with one another. It’s clear they’re still not over one another, and Thomas hits this spot on. I liked Catherine and I liked Captain Atwood. The villain isn’t the most interesting or complex in the story and the ending wasn’t quite as satisfying as it could have been. The book alternates between the present and the past. I found the chapters about their past to be a lot more interesting while those in the present felt more subdued.
by Colleen Cowley ASN: B08KNPY365 Publication: November 29, 2020 Series: Clandestine Magic Trilogy #3
Get it here: Amazon For more details (like content warnings), click here.
**I was provided a copy of the book from the author. I voluntarily read and reviewed it. All opinions are my own.**
**Additionally, be forewarned the following may contain spoilers for Subversive and Radical.**
While Peter’s life hangs in the balance, Beatrix is faced with the responsibilities of keeping him safe as well as ensuring Lydia can continue going to school…not to mention ensuring all the bills are still being paid despite her job being on (possibly indefinite) hiatus. Despite this, enemies are still lurking everywhere, prepared to explore any weakness they can find. However, alliescan be found in unexpected places.
The distribution of power has clear consequences especially when we understand that those in power have no reason to want to share it. If you have power, why would you give it up? Through Subversive and Radical, we learn that wizards sit at the top of the social strata while men without magical ability occupy everything else except the bottom rung, which is set aside for women. Women have no magical abilities (or were at least told they didn’t) and are expected to marry to fulfill societal expectations. Not only are women up against males who want them to remain in their subservient roles but wizards who would like to maintain the status quo. The growing number of women trying to dismantle the patriarchy pose a threat to those in power, and those in power will do anything to keep it. In Revolutionary, we find out what anything means.
Cowley once again shows how she can manipulate me into believing that I know what she’s getting me into, that I know what is going on. Then, of course, she throws something into the mix that surprises me. I was her puppet, and she continually pulled my (heart) strings. (I am just too gullible.) I thought I learned my lesson from the first two books but my guesses as to what would happen next only multiplied. Cowley had me suspicious of everyone and made me doubt my hunches multiple times. I was proud to say there was at least one thing I suspected that I was right about, and it made me feel like I finally won the magic lotto.
Of course, I cannot close this review without mentioning Beatrix and Peter. This was a relationship I rooted for since the beginning. I’m a sucker for enemies-to-lovers but Cowley brought so much complexity to this trope. Beatrix and Peter went through so much with and for each other. The ending was one they deserved. Throughout the trilogy, there has always been a question of whether what they felt for one another was genuine. Is there an answer? Yes. Is it the one you’re looking for? I can’t say. (commence evil laughter: MUAH HAHAHA.)
It is bittersweet to have The Clandestine Trilogy come to an end. I always feel this way when I finish reading books I love, and I definitely loved this trilogy. It feels more like I’m closing a chapter on my life, as though I’m saying goodbye to friends, and less like I’m simply closing a book. The trilogy is a highlight of my very bookish year.
The trilogy brought me joy in multiple ways. I greatly enjoyed the political intrigue and how it reflected real past and present political struggles. The fight for equal rights, the strategic behavior in framing the fight, and the distribution of power were all very entertaining from an analytical perspective. Pairing these with romance between two characters I grew to care about made it all the more interesting and a worthwhile read. While nothing will beat the first time reading it, I already know I will be rereading this trilogy soon.
by Colleen Cowley ASN: B08J83X9CD Publication date: October 25, 2020 Series: Clandestine Magic Trilogy #2
Get it here: Amazon For more details (like content warnings), click here.
**The following contains spoilers for book 1, Subversive.**
Beatrix’s desire to protect her sister against those trying to dismantle the women’s movement compels Beatrix and her best friend Ella to move forward with their plans to secretly provide magic lessons to other women. Their actions, however, may have consequences neither completely thought through.
The political intrigue continues in Radical as it becomes clear that those running the government see Lydia Harper and the women’s movement as a threat to their power. Beatrix now understands that the danger to her sister is very real. Being in this position reinforces the importance of family to Beatrix but also highlights her tunnel vision when things relate to her sister. She may often act hastily without thoroughly understanding the consequences for those around her. When magic is concerned, the resident wizard is bound to become entangled, leading to the question of how much of her relationship with Peter is Beatrix willing to jeopardize? It’s a difficult decision when they’re both people she loves (or one of them is at least).
The plot device used to connect our leads was ingenious. It was complex and constantly evolving. It put me on an emotional rollercoaster. And yet, I still loved it. I’ve been committed to Beatrice and Peter’s relationship since the beginning, and Radical wore me down emotionally. I was struggling nearly as much as Peter and Beatrix struggled with their feelings for one another, questioning if their feelings were genuine or a manifestation of their connection. One thing is for certain though, whether it is love or not, the pain from betrayal still cuts deeply.
There were moments when it felt like the magic rules kept changing. It could be construed that the rules were being made up as the story went…as if there weren’t rules to begin with. However, I think it fits well into the overall story because not much research has been done on the magical abilities of women. Anything can nearly go because no one knows much about what women can do. (Now for my PSA…) This is what can happen when knowledge is purposely withheld. If knowledge is truly power, those who get to control the narrative and determine what information is released may go a long way to protect what they do not want to be disclosed. This is why the dissemination of information is so important.
While I didn’t enjoy this quite as much as Subversive, it is still a good read–great when compared to other books I’ve read this year. It’s just that Subversive was extra good (unfair, I know). I felt like Radical taunted me, lulling me into believing I knew what was going to happen when I actually didn’t know much at all. Like its predecessor, it kept me on my toes. It also reinforced what I learned from reading Subversive: Cowley has an uncanny ability for writing endings, the rip your heart out kind (cue: Lifehouse’s “Whatever It Takes”)
by Colleen Cowley ASN: B08GYLTKNZ Publication date: September 27, 2020 Series: Clandestine Magic Trilogy #1
Get it here: Amazon For more details (like content warnings), click here.
**I was provided a copy of the book by the author. I voluntarily read and reviewed it. All opinions are my own. (If you’re wondering, the book is superb!)**
Peter Blackwell returns to his former hometown Ellicott Mills to serve as the town’s resident wizard, an omnimancer to help with illnesses or other problems that may arise in the town. Requiring an assistant, he manages to steal Beatrix Harper from her current place of employment (against her wishes). Although initially adverse to the idea, Beatrix agrees to help him, not realizing that helping Peter will require her to break the law because he didn’t exactly return home to just be an omnimancer.
There’s something to be said about reading a book you hope is going to be good and have it meet your expectations, possibly even exceed them. Reading Subversive was one of the best experiences I had all year. It felt like all my favorite genres—fantasy, romance, regency (not a real genre I know…but it’s historical but yet not and I get regency vibes from it )–melded into one. I had a difficult time trying to figure out that something to say, how I might capture how wonderful it is in a blog post—the answer is that I couldn’t but still tried.
Cowley’s magnetic storytelling and distinct magic system had me enamored with the book and its characters. The social system and the political system are reflective of the present United States but this somewhat dystopian U.S. lags in women’s rights—women don’t have any. Okay, they have limited rights but it feels more like no rights at all. For instance, women have a curfew, and single women are not allowed to be alone with single men or else their reputations will be tarnished. The lack of women’s rights and the privilege that comes from having magical abilities serves as a compelling backdrop to the events that unfold. The book poses multiple questions, and among them is the question of what those in power will do to stay in power.
I immediately liked Beatrix upon meeting her. Family is everything to her, and she is determined that her sister has opportunities she never had, even though it can lead to resentment and go unappreciated at times. She isn’t infallible. She can be stubborn and doesn’t have a problem speaking her mind or apologizing when she has erred.
Peter is a bit harder to figure out because it isn’t immediately clear what his motivations are. What is clear, though, is that he knows exactly what he is doing when he hires Beatrix, and it isn’t because he is just a nice wizard trying to help her out. The relationship that blossoms from their work arrangement is a complicated one and kept me turning the pages.
I cannot emphasize how much I enjoyed it! It felt like stepping into a Jane Austen novel in an alternate 21st century made extra complicated by the presence of magic. I wasn’t always able to predict what was going to happen next. I both loved and hated how it kept me on my toes just as I thought I had it figured out. I kept wanting to skip to the end so I wouldn’t be so anxious about what was going to happen next. I didn’t but I really wanted to. It’s perfect for fans of romantic fantasy with strong, capable women fighting for what they believe in.
by Minerva Spencer ISBN: 9781496732835 Publication: November 24, 2020 Series: Rebels of the Ton #1
**I was provided a copy of the book through NetGalley. I voluntarily read and reviewed it. All opinions are my own.**
At her age, Drusilla is considered an old spinster. It also doesn’t help that she is an independent, progressive woman who has no plans to get married. Plans change, however, after her reputation is tarnished and she becomes engaged to her best friend’s brother to protect it.
The book is generally written well. There are a few surprises that made for an interesting story and allows the reader to keep pressing forward to find out what will happen next. Many readers will find this to be an enjoyable book because it does have its moments, but I do not think it was a good fit for me. I had high expectations for the novel but was left disappointed. It became difficult to finish reading when it was clear Drusilla was relegated to a supporting character in Gabriel’s story as opposed to sharing a leading role with him. He often dictated and she had to respond to him.
The summary of the book paints Drusilla as a liberal thinker, shunning the expectations of marriage and creating a group that takes up social causes. In the first half of the book, she at least seems to be that person. She banters with Gabriel while trying to hide her feelings about him. She doesn’t mind that people are aware of her ideologies. By the second half of the book, she is boxed into the role of a wife and the independent thinking woman disappears. The Drusilla we are left with is one who pines after Gabriel and who continually reminds herself that he doesn’t love her. So much unnecessary angst and frustration for the characters and the reader could have been prevented had Drusilla and Gabriel just talked to one another.
Outside of the bedroom, the most we get from Drusilla is excitement when Gabriel accompanies her to the seamstress. We see a spark of who she used to be toward the end, but by that time I was already frustrated. It was infuriating to see her turn into one of her greatest fears. She stopped standing up for herself, going so far as to take the blame for some of Gabriel’s flare ups and hardly ever demanding an apology. We don’t see her do anything about the social causes she claimed to care about despite her insistence earlier on that she be able to continue to do so should she and Gabriel be married.
Then the book shifts focus to Gabriel, despite alternating viewpoints, leaving us to accept this new version of Drusilla. If there is one thing that I dislike, it is how female leads like Drusilla go from independent to complacent as soon as they are paired up, which feels completely out of character. I would have been more understanding had I seen it coming, and the expectation was that she would change for marriage. The argument could be made that it was the time period and this should have been expected, but Drusilla verbally fought against this. After giving up on Drusilla, I found Eva becoming an interesting character but by the time she became interesting, the book was already coming to an end.
Individuals may be able to pick Notorious up and enjoy it, especially if this is a time period that is of interest to them. It is fast-paced, filled with unexpected twists. On the other hand, if individuals are looking for a strong, independent female lead promised in the summary, they may be left disappointed. I’ll be honest, I had high expectations for this book and I’m still reeling from the disappointment.
by C.L. Polk ISBN: 9781645660071 Publication: October 13, 2020
**I was provided a copy of the book through NetGalley. I voluntarily read and reviewed it. All opinions are my own.**
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.
REFLECTING ON 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.