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?
Publication details: 13 October 2021, by Erewhon. Review copy provided by the publisher.
I have been a fan of C.L. Polk since I read Witchmark late last year, and she lived up to my expectations here: The Midnight Bargain is my favourite of her works to date.
Overall, I really enjoyed this book, though there were definitely moments where I found myself enraged on Beatrice’s behalf regarding her treatment. The premise of this book is that sorceresses have their magic suppressed when they get married, to prevent the risk of their future unborn children being possessed by spirits during pregnancy and turned into dangerous monsters. Which sounds horribly dystopia-esque, but this book is actually a secondary world regency fantasy, where the focus is on a few individual women trying to find a way out of such a fate and continue to pursue their interests as Mages (a mission complicated by society’s obsession with marriage as a way to bolster a family’s fortunes). It’s not the tone I was expecting, but it really worked for the purposes of this book, as it showed how the subjugation of women becomes ingrained in society in part by robbing individual women of their agency and stopping them from collaborating to end their own oppression.
Beatrice is a determined (if occasionally reckless) character, and I found it rewarding to follow her journey throughout the book. I particularly liked her friendship with Ysbeta, Ianthe’s sister. The synopsis paints them as rivals, but they quickly realise that they have a mutual interest best achieved through cooperation and collaboration, which is a much more interesting story – proving yet again that female friendships make everything better. Her relationship with Ianthe had an unfortunate air of insta-love about it, and it took me a while to warm to him as he, too, was forced to slowly let go of his assumptions about women’s ability to wield magic. (I gave the insta-love somewhat of a pass in this book as it was at least necessary for the plot to proceed – and by the end I was totally rooting for them).
Otherwise, I found the magic system fascinating – after their training, a sorcerer binds themselves to a spirit who helps them wield magic, but they must offer something as part of a bargain in return. Nadi, Beatrice’s chosen spirit, is a fun addition to the cast with her witty commentary on everyone they meet and steadfast determination to put some of the more smug male villains in their place.
The Midnight Bargain is an excellent addition to the feminist fantasy genre, which speaks to current issues around women’s bodily autonomy in a relevant way while still managing to remain lighthearted and fresh.