Representation: Secondary characters of colour, feminist themes, asexual-coded secondary character
Published by Erewhon on 13th October 2020
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?
So the thing is, I got my ARC (thank you Erewhon Books!), started reading…and had to stop on page four.
Not because it was bad! The exact opposite, actually.
I identified, empathised, with Beatrice so much, I couldn’t bear to read the scene I knew was coming. It’s not much of a spoiler; Beatrice finds a book she desperately wants, one that could change her life – but because of social rules, because she has to be Polite, she lets someone else take it instead. And reading that scene is agonising, not because the writing is bad – not even close! – but because I felt every instant of it as if I were the one in Beatrice’s shoes.
And really, that tells you the most important thing about Midnight Bargain right away: this is a book that you don’t read, you live. Beatrice is a protagonist you can’t help rooting for, but it’s so much more than that: you feel what she feels with an intensity that astounds. Her determination, her social awkwardness, her triumphs and pitfalls and the champagne-esque bubbles of joy; you’re not reading about them, you’re experiencing them all with her. It’s impossible not to make the comparison between the reader, and the spirits the sorcerers in the story deal with: spirits dwell in another realm, and are summoned into a sorcerer’s body so that they can experience a human’s senses.
With Midnight Bargain, the reader is the spirit, and the book the world of colour and texture and taste and emotion that almost overwhelms with its intensity.
Or flip it around; Polk’s writing is like one of the Greater Spirits, putting the reader in the position of sorcerer – once you let it inside you, nothing else can compare. Nothing can make you let the feeling of magic go.
I might have stopped at page four…but only for a few minutes.
Polk has crafted a story, cast, and world you can’t help but be ensnared by. Tiny, seemingly innocuous worldbuilding details (like brides being married in green!) are scattered throughout seemingly carelessly, but with all the skill of a jeweler placing gemstones where they’ll best shine (and you’d better keep track of them, because some build upon others into a mosaic the whole of which is only visible at the very end). These subtle details change the setting from something vaguely like Regency England into a place completely its own; even when I thought I recognised a trope, either in the setting or the story, it shimmered into a very different shape when I wasn’t looking, in beautifully clever ways. I absolutely loved those sneaky subversions!
Beatrice’s story, at its surface, looks familiar: she has to win a rich husband to save her family, despite not wanting to marry. She’s smart and sharp-tongued and socially awkward. She is a Fabulous Woman in a Patriarchy That Does Not Appreciate Her.
Okay; we know how this story goes, right?
See, Beatrice is also a sorceress. But women aren’t allowed to use their magic in Chasland, Beatrice’s country. When they get married, their husbands put warding collars around their wives’ necks to cut them off from their magic.
Insert absolutely furious rage here.
But. Here’s the thing. Although it’s disgusting and awful and hugely unfair??? There’s actually a really good reason for it: if a sorceress gets pregnant, a spirit can enter the fetus before its born. This results in an incredibly dangerous ‘spiritborn’ child more than capable of burning down an entire city in a tantrum.
And that’s where Beatrice’s story really takes a sharp left turn from what I was expecting, because this…this is unusual. I’ve come across plenty of stories where The Patriarchy Sucks. But I can’t recall a single other example where The Patriarchy Sucks…But Also Has a Point. Is cutting a woman off from her magic fair? No! But what other option is there? Even other, more civilised countries, we learn, still use the warding collars – it’s just that their women only wear them while actually pregnant, not 24/7 for their entire lives.
Polk has changed the game. Of course you’re on Beatrice’s side, but… Well. But. And that – making the situation complicated, painting it in greys instead of keeping to a simple black and white – is one of the many things that makes Midnight Bargain really special. Although the book isn’t a ‘difficult’ read, with prose that draws you along and in and feels so easy and elegant, it’s by no means simple. And that tangles the reader’s emotions. It makes Beatrice’s world even more real, because it’s like ours: sometimes there aren’t easy answers, quick fixes. Sometimes things are unfair not because of evil, but to keep us safe.
And this is all without weighing the very real straits Beatrice’s family are in, and her familial duties and responsibilities to them. Doesn’t she owe it to them to get married? To marry as well as she can? Isn’t that the only way she can save them?
Look: the blurb wants to convince you that this is a romance. And it kind of is, just like the Lavan siblings (the sister = the rival who steals Beatrice’s book; the brother = the most eligible, and wonderful, bachelor of Bargaining Season) do, indeed, tie Beatrice in knots and pull her in conflicting directions. But it’s nothing like that simple. Ianthe Lavan, Beatrice’s suitor and love interest, is so much more than a love interest. His and Beatrice’s relationship is so much more than a romance – or maybe it would be better to say, it’s the truest romance I’ve read in…maybe ever. And I kind of have to talk about Ianthe, because I’m so impressed with him as a character and with Polk for pulling him off so brilliantly. Ianthe starts the book believing he has enlightened views on women, because his country treats women much better than Beatrice’s. And that’s true! But. Better is not the same as good, and in enormous part because of his feelings for Beatrice, he starts to actually get that. Ianthe’s character arc is that of any well-off liberal who believes themselves to be an ally…then actually getting schooled by a member of an oppressed group, and listening. And learning. And doing better. In large part by realising that he can’t be the one who fixes everything; he can only support Beatrice, not save her.
She has to save herself, or it won’t mean anything.
I mean, by the end of the book I was in love with Ianthe, for crying out loud. What’s better: a picture-perfect hero, or someone who actually listens to you and takes you seriously and changes their mind and behaviour because of it? Because of you?
Who wouldn’t swoon?
Beatrice absolutely swoons. But Ianthe turning out to be even more wonderful than he originally seems is actually the opposite of helpful. Because she can have magic, or marriage, but she can’t have both. And where she only wanted one before – magic – now she does want both. And that just makes everything so much more painful.
Honestly, Beatrice and Ianthe’s conversations were some of my favourite parts of the book, because Polk articulates so well the issues of autonomy and why being allowed or given something isn’t the same as, or as good as, the thing being yours by right. So Ianthe would take the warding collar off when Beatrice wasn’t pregnant: so? That makes her magic into something he grants her, gives her, allows her. When it should be hers – is hers! Of course marriage with Ianthe would be much better than marrying a Chaslander, who would keep her in the collar all the time.
But better is not the same as good.
Polk plays your heartstrings like a master harpist with a harp, and it’s absolutely incredible. There’s no way not to rage at the unfairness of Beatrice’s situation, of the situation of all women in her world. There’s no way not to ache at the terrible choice she has to face. There’s no way not to chew your nails to the absolute quick as you turn the pages faster and faster, desperate for everything to end well even when you can’t figure out how it possibly could.
Look, this is an extremely long review (I HAVE FEELS, OKAY?) but you can basically sum the whole thing up by just imagining me screaming READ THIS BOOK at you.
So, you know.
READ THIS BOOK ALREADY!