The Midnight Bargain is a wonderful stand alone fantasy novel. C.L. Polk has created a world that feels very mid-18th century – not quite on the verge of an industrial revolution, but moving in that direction. The society is stratified by wealth and a good way to earn wealth is through magic and the magical societies open only to men. Women are prohibited from the magical education which would allow them to practice higher levels of magic. Beatrice Clayborn is the eldest daughter of a family on the fringes of wealth and respectability. She is smart and stubborn and has sought to teach herself magic. Her father made a foolish investment and now the family’s last hope of solvency is for Beatrice to marry well. When Beatrice marries though, she will be fitted with a warding collar, cutting her off from magic. When we meet Beatrice, her goal is to learn more magic and avoid marriage.
Beatrice is initially thwarted by Ysbeta Lavan, but the two come to an arrangement to help each other. Through their shared interest in magic and desire not to wed, they become allies and then friends. Ysbeta’s brother, Ianthe, becomes enamored of Beatrice, challenging her desire to stay a spinster. Beatrice and Ysbeta are rebels and as their families force them towards marriage they become more radical in their desire for autonomy. Polk has said definitively that this is a stand alone, but if she ever wants to revisit this world I would love to read their adventures out in the world.
The Midnight Bargain has strong romantic elements. Ianthe wants what’s best for his sister and for Beatrice, but it takes him a long time to realize that they know what’s best for themselves. And when he does finally see it, I swooned. Polk’s central conflict is the gendered oppression with some exploration of how that intersects with classism. Throughout the story we see the ways in which oppression blinds us, foments division and a creates poverty of compassion. Ianthe, who is a very good man and would be an exccellent romantic hero if this were a romance, does not see what Beatrice and Ysbeta face, he does not understand the questions they are asking, much less why they are asking them. He misinterprets their reactions and cannot see solutions to problems because he blindly accepts the premise of oppression. He does all that while also accepting that Ysbeta and Beatrice are not wrong.
One of the threads woven into this story was the way in which oppression corrupts. When power is in the hands of the few, those outside of that group are forced to fight over scraps of power and autonomy. People are punished unfairly and unequally. It would be easy to read The Midnight Bargain as the struggle for women’s rights in a fantasy setting, but I think Polk is telling a broader story.
The book cover features embroidered flowers and I think it so appropriate. Polk builds a lushly beautiful world with her words – a world you can feel, taste and smell. I know I’ve been going on about social justice, because that’s what hooks me, but aside from that, The Midnight Bargain is a great read. The characters are well drawn and interesting, the story has texture and the ending is happy.
I truly loved this book. I received it as an arc from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. It’s out October 13.