A Midnight Bargain
Possibly ending at 4am, actually.
It’s very rare that I finish a full-length book in one sitting. It’s even more unlikely when it’s a book I’ve already read, albeit in an earlier draft.
Fair warning here: I am a very biased reviewer for this book. I was privileged to read an early draft because the author is a friend. You may think this means I’m giving Ms. Polk an automatic double-thumbs-up, but in fact, it makes me even more critical.
Be honest with me, when was the last time you were 100% hyped for something a close friend or member of your family was involved in? How many times did you hold your tongue rather than give unwanted and probably unnecessary criticism?
(Conversely, how many times have you been a bumbling idiot and recommended plot changes that would have cost an author an award? I’ve been that idiot. Don’t be me.)
Now imagine your close friend or family member is a critically-acclaimed, award-winning SFF author. Trust me, you learn to shut your mouth Really Damn Fast.
Because C. L. is a Very Good Author indeed. I’ve learned to wait until she’s done before giving my opinion.
See my previous remarks on being a bumbling idiot.
And now it’s time for that opinion. And….whew. This is a hard one, folks, because this book really is That Good. It’s good enough that I begged off playing Warcrack for a night, curled up in bed with my iPad, and started reading.
I didn’t stop until I was finished the book. It was 4am. It was worth it.
The Midnight Bargain
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?
In Other Words
Beatrice wants to embrace her destiny as a sorceress. She is born with strong magical talents, which make her a valuable prize – unfortunately, as bride to any Magus wishing to further strengthen his own magical line. Men train in the arcane arts. Women wear restrictive collars with magic-inhibiting powers. Otherwise, a rogue spirit could inhabit their unborn child’s body.
Beatrice’s family is proud, but have fallen on hard times. As such, they have heavily invested in Bargaining Season, hoping Beatrice will make a match with a wealthy man. Not only will this help dig the family out of the financial hole they’re in, but it will help launch Beatrice’s sister when her own Bargaining Season comes around.
Beatrice has other ideas. She would rather give up love and marriage for her calling as a mage. Her parents educated her in the ways of business, and if she could only get her father to listen to her advice…
On her way to a dress fitting, she locates a book that will teach her how to link with a Greater Spirit. Her hope is dashed when it the book is swept right out of her hands in the middle of the book store. Desperate, she makes a deal with a lesser spirit of fortune. Will luck be on her side?
We all know this setup. It’s a classic romance story, guaranteed to suck in those of us who like a little kissing in our fantasy. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that. I fully endorse it.
Beatrice is dogged in her determination to get that book, becoming fast friends with the thief, and falling in love with the thief’s brother in the process. You and I and the wall know that the real point of this story isn’t that book or the romance. It’s the greater issue of women’s liberation and autonomy, and Polk is a very skillful spider in her weaving of this tale. It’s in the process of trying to get the book back – failing multiple times at her attempts to liberate herself – that Beatrice becomes a stronger character. The struggle illuminates her allies and enemies alike, and shows just what a woman is worth in her culture.
Jane Austen has been on my mind recently. I mentioned Sense and Sensibility in my video, Bloody Wee Stitches. At the time, I was discussing costuming, and fashionable eras, and the fact that Jane Austen was more political than most would think. Like Midnight Bargain, Sense and Sensibility is often dismissed as a silly romance. Not so.
Mr. Dashwood Sr. has just passed away. His dying request is that his son, John Dashwood, should assist the elder’s widow and daughters. John and his wife are, to put it mildly, not happy with this. They place great importance on their own worth, and the worth of their belongings. Their concern is solely for themselves.
The conversation starts with John Dashwood thinking he might settle a sum of three-thousand pounds on his stepmother and three sisters. By the end, he’s not only convinced they will happily do for themselves, but that they should feel fortunate to give him any extra monies they might have floating around.
What a dick.
Carried to Midnight
It is into this sort of world that C. L. Polk slyly places her heroine. Women, particularly women of good breeding and possible talent, are very valuable. Beatrice’s mother gives up power and wealth to marry for love. It is a privilege that is extended to Beatrice only if she manages to love a wealthy man. Even then, you have to wonder at a kind of love that quite literally puts a woman into a form of bondage that completely deadens her entire personality and world view.
The fact that Beatrice places more importance on her longing to become a mage is besides the point. Even her education is waved away as a “value-add”. She is schooled in the way of business so she will be able to spot when her husband’s household is being cheated by staff or suppliers. The expectation is that she will be a good chatelaine, and will give up any of her own interests for her husband and possible children. That collar is going on one way or the other according to the society she lives in. Beatrice is a commodity to be traded to the highest bidder.
We are the goon squad and we’re coming to town, beep-beep
Beatrice beheld a Llanandari woman who stood tall and slim in a saffron satin-woven cotton Mantua, the under-gown scattered all over with vibrant tropical flowers, the elbow-length sleeves erupting in delicate, hand-hooked lace. hooked lace, on a day-gown!The Midnight Bargain
C. L. Polk
I wouldn’t blame anyone who missed the political undercurrents in The Midnight Bargain. C. L.’s descriptions of fancy ball gowns, luscious textiles, and gorgeous vistas steal the show.
Beatrice quickly meets Ysbeta and Ianthe Lavan, the adult children of wealthy merchants. Her acquaintance with them launches her to the forefront of Bargaining Season and its social whirl. Anything they miss, Beatrice’s younger sister Harriet is sure to point out. Ms. Polk introduces us to fashions and styles inspired by history, but placed in their own context. This creates a visually stunning world seen only in the mind’s eye.
It’s the one-two punch of fancy and authenticity that take you off-guard when C. L. rips down those walls of genteel fashion to reveal the unsharpened truth. Surprise! This book is literary fantasy disguised as fluffy romance. Cherish it. We don’t see them very often.
The Midnight Bargain will be available in Hardcover (and digital media!) through Erewhon Books starting October 13th, 2020.
Mantua and petticoat of bizarre silk brocade, British, c. 1708 (MET)
By Unknown author – https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/81809, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=56608171