The Midnight Bargain
by C. L. Polk
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted May 31, 2021
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C. L. Polk's The Midnight Bargain is a finalist for a Nebula, winners of which will be announced next weekend. It is a secondary world fantasy that has the flavor of a Regency romance. Against her will, eighteen-year-old Beatrice Clayborn of Chasland is thrust into the spectacle of Bargaining Season, wherein ingenues are on display for the sons of the rich and successful. Her family is neither of those, in fact she later learns her father had mortgaged their family home and property in order to afford a townhome in Bendleton for the season. If she had her way he would not have had to do that, since she does not want to marry. She would rather be a sorceress, a mage, but that is denied to women, or at least to those who could do so openly. It is accepted that many women have the ability for magic, but they are expected to abandon it for marriage and motherhood. There is a reason for that, since historically women who do not wear a restraining collar during pregnancy risk their unborn child being possessed by a spirit. Since she doesn't want to marry or have children that doesn't concern Beatrice. That is, until it becomes clear her father insists she accept a marriage proposal, and hopefully from a wealthy man, in order for him to benefit financially after several failed business ventures. She is unable to convince him to allow her to remain single, become a mage, and be his business advisor.
Thus is set the predicament of battling the patriarchy, which not only maintains a grip on financial matters, but also in the realm of magic. Many men become members of chapterhouses in order to learn magic summoning spells, something Beatrice has learned on her own through several grimoires she has found in old bookstores. They have alternate titles, and coded texts, which hide their wonders from those who cannot puzzle out the codes. Beatrice has already learned how to summon a lesser spirit, one of luck, which aids her in several instances. She gives her father false hope when she becomes friends with Ianthe and Ysbeta Lavan, the son and daughter of a wealthy shipping magnate from the foreign land of Llanandras. Ianthe is considered the perfect catch for the luckiest lady, and would certainly be so for Beatrice's father. She does like him, perhaps even loves him, but she still wants to escape the collar, and Ianthe is a chapterhouse member steeped in tradition. She has a kindred soul in Ysbeta, who also does not want to marry, and also wants to be a mage, to travel the world discovering all the lost secrets of magic hidden in other grimoires. Can they work together to escape the fate that family and society has in store for them?
It's a relatively short novel, less than 400 pages, but could have been shorter. There is a lot of repetition of both dialog and action, too many iterations of Beatrice's stated goals, many instances of stubborness and denial on the part of both her father and Ianthe. It would have made a strong novella, but I started to lose interest even before the halfway mark, mainly due to my aversion to the posturings of high society. I continued only to see how everything played out. I was sure Beatrice would be successful as a mage, but I didn't know if she could manage that and still find love. If she and Ysbeta could discover an alternative to the marriage collar she might even relent on the subject of motherhood. Slightly entertaining, but suffers from thin characterizations and repetition. There may be a continuation, but I'm not sure I'll be interested. Those who like Regency romance will probably like it more than I did.
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