I had the very unexpected pleasure of receiving The Midnight Bargain weeks after requesting it, so I dropped my regular TBR to finish this before its release date of October 13. Thank you, Netgalley and Erewhon Books, for this ARC. I finished it in one day, so you know it was engaging, even if I had mixed feelings altogether about it.
From the Publisher:
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?
What I Loved:
- The Female Relationships. Something that I notice is often missing in SFF is strong female relationships, both familial and friendship, that show depth and complexity. Either they are all good or all bad. In The Midnight Bargain, Beatrice has a small group of people she associates with. She finds an unexpected and fulfilling friendship with Ysbeta Lavan that is both loving and contentious, and her relationship with her sister Harriet is tumultuous but still deep for two girls so diametrically opposite. Beatrice’s mother is one of those women of hidden strength, and it is awesome seeing how she supports her daughters from behind the scenes. I would love to see more female bonds like this.
- (Some aspects of) the Magical System. I am not going to say it is perfect (see below), but I loved the bond between the spirits and humans. Nadi is one of the most fun characters in the book despite being a spirit, and I loved the characterization of spirits being capricious and curious that don’t know the scope of their power. The hidden grimoires written by an underground group of sorceresses was a really great way to tie in real history, since women throughout the ages have been finding subversive ways to support other women and find strength. I also loved how the right to practice magic is tied to the patriarchal society, since this is exactly how it would be in real life. The magical system was interesting and easy to understand without losing its complexity. Lastly, I loved how in other ways (specifically race), the magic is egalitarian.
- The Comparisons to Regency England. I have a not-so-secret love of Regency England bodice rippers (whoops) and also of historical fiction of the tamer kind, so I loved the parallels here. The calling cards, the rented homes on fancy streets in (fake) London, the balls and coming out parties were all beautifully written. Harriet teaching Beatrice the finer points of society and interactions were some of my favorites between the sisters.
What Didn’t Work for Me:
- The Pacing. This is probably the biggest issue I had with the book besides its heavy-handedness. There are some times when this book goes excruciatingly slow (think first 20%), then the end was a rush of deus ex machina proportion. I almost put it down in the beginning, but was so happy to continue. However, it is unfortunate to feel that way.
- The Romance. This book suffers from “insta-love,” where Beatrice falls so in love with Ianthe so quickly, she can picture giving up her dreams of being a sorceress after the first kiss. Ianthe, for his part, is willing to throw away his future for her, and this book only occurs over the course of a few months at most. I liked Ianthe and loved how progressive he was, but this trope is so tired. These two children don’t know what love is. Given the pacing issue, I wish some of the faster paced areas showed a blooming love instead of infatuation. Given how important the romance is to the plot, it should have been given room to grow.
- (Other aspects of) the Magical System – aka performative feminism. While I really did enjoy the spirits and the secret societies of magic, I disliked how heavy-handed the magic suppressant collars were. Maybe I am reading too far into this, but it felt like it equated marriage and babies to actual slavery. In this book, it essentially was. I am wary of that comparison as a whole, and while this is supposed to take place in Regency England, I felt as though the narrative did more to tell instead of show the plight of women. The vitriol that Beatrice received for considering practicing high magic was a little too universal, and made Ianthe look even more like a savior mage instead of like an ally. Can we also mention how the poor woman that had a spiritborn baby was mentioned once or twice, but then nothing was done to address income and social inequality, just gender inequality?
Conclusion & Rating Explanation
Despite my review, I gave this book four waves. This may seem weird because the cons seemed to outweigh the pros; however, The Midnight Bargain had something that has been missing from my reading life for a while: an unequivocal, uplifting happy ending. Happy endings seem to have gone out of style recently, with many more “woke” readers than I saying that they are unrealistic and simplistic, to the point of making the writing trashy. This infuriates me. We are living in the most insane time of our lives right now, and I for one am happy to read a fun SFF with feminism and magic and a heroine who gets everything she wants and deserves in the end.
Bottom line, I would recommend this to most YA and adult SFF readers. The magical system is interesting, the feminism, while flawed, is welcome, and the world build keeps you interested and invested. Pre-Order your copy here and here for a wonderful October read!
5 thoughts on “ARC Review: “The Midnight Bargain,” by C.L. Polk”
Fantastic review! It seems like it has some really good stuff going for it, but some of these cons would probably drive me nuts. I’m definitely curious, though!
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Thank you so much! I know this one had a lot of mixed reviews, and I did honestly want to DNF in the very beginning, but I am so happy I stuck it out. Not for everyone, but definitely worth a try 🙂
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Fabulous review, Sam! I agree wholeheartedly with all of your sentiments. I particularly enjoyed your observation regarding how the collar essentially equated marriage and having children to slavery. I never went with it that far in my head, but I think you are spot on. 🙂