November 13, 2020

Review: The Midnight Bargain

The Midnight Bargain The Midnight Bargain by C.L. Polk
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a wonderful book. I'll admit I was a bit skeptical when I first started reading it--I've never been into Regencies (I've never read any Georgette Heyer), and I wasn't sure I was in the mood for a lighthearted fantasy romance. Thankfully, that wasn't what this is. It is a fantasy romance, but it has a well-thought-out magic system, and it tackles some serious themes. The two protagonists are women searching for a way out of their suffocating patriarchal system, and this is a story of women who will do anything for the right of choice and to seek their destiny as they see fit.

Beatrice Clayborn is eighteen, and she and her family have come to the capital of Chasland for the "bargaining season"--a few weeks where daughters with sorcerous powers are offered up like broodmares at an auction. She has been studying magic in secret for years, and she is searching for a grimoire which will allow her to make the "great bargain," binding herself to a greater spirit that will free her from the necessity of marriage. In this world's magic system, magic is performed by mages uniting with lesser or greater spirits. Spirits are eager to inhabit human bodies and experience the delights of human senses, and nothing draws them more than slipping into and taking over an unborn child. Because of this, in Chasland, a more repressive country than most, at marriage girls are locked into "warding collars," which block the use of their magic and force spirits away from them. In Chasland, where evidently they have no effective methods of birth control (unlike some other countries) women are forced into these collars from marriage until menopause (and if a girl gets pregnant outside of marriage and births a spiritborn, both she and the child are burned at the stake). Beatrice wants to become a mage, and is desperate to find a way to escape the trap of the "bargaining season."

She finds her grimoire in the very first chapter, but it's taken from her by Ysbeta Lavan, a young woman of a richer family and higher class. (The society is obviously based on England, and the ugliness of its class system is on full display.) Ysbeta is also searching for a way out, and her goal is even more radical than Beatrice's. Ysbeta Lavan, the daughter of one of the richest, most powerful families in the neighboring country of Llanandras, wants to neither marry nor have children. She wishes to make the Great Bargain and spend her life seeking out hidden and forgotten magical knowledge and giving it to the world.

Ysbeta also has a brother, Ianthe, who meets Beatrice that fateful day in the bookshop. That meeting, with Ysbeta and Beatrice both drawn to the grimoire that will prove to be the key to their freedom, will upend both their lives and their world.

The fourth main character of our story is the spirit Nadi, the "lesser spirit" Beatrice summons to help get her grimoire back. The relationships between these four characters, and to a lesser extent Beatrice's younger sister Harriet--who proves to be a master at navigating the complex and rigid rules of the bargaining season; I would love to have a book telling Harriet's story--make up the heart of this story, and they are given some satisfying character arcs. Of course, Beatrice and Ianthe fall in love, and we get the heartbreaking dichtotomy that is the core of this book, as expressed when she turns down his marriage proposal:

The ship rose and fell with the ocean's breath, and Beatrice used it to breathe calm, to focus on getting the words out without breaking further. "I can't let magic go and still be happy. Not even for you."

"You can still do magic," Ianthe said. "If we know you're not pregnant, then we can--"

"You can take the collar off," Beatrice said. "If I can only use my magic when you deem it safe, does that magic belong to me, or to you?"

"It would only be for safety," Ianthe said. "I don't presume to own your magic."

"But I would only be freed because you released me," Beatrice said. "This isn't a tightly laced set of stays or shoes that pinch my toes for the sake of turning up in fashion. It's my freedom! And even if that thing was not around my neck one day, it would be--as soon as you decided you wanted another child, or thought there might be one, or my courses were late by a day. If you marry me, you will own my magic, no matter how hard we pretend. And I will hate you if you do that to me. I will hate you, and it will tear me apart."

This book is the story of Beatrice and Ysbeta's fight for freedom--both from their fathers, who are trying to marry them to men they do not want, and the larger system of the chapterhouses, who teach the magically gifted men and bind the women. In the end, they do triumph: in fact, several years later Beatrice returns to Chasland, eight months pregnant and bringing the Clayborn Method of Fetal Protection, the ritual to enable an unwarded sorceress to carry a child to term with no spirit possession. When she presents this to all the master mages, we see just how desperate they are to hold on to their privilege.

"Ianthe can still perform minor charms," Beatrice said, "but you are correct. My husband and I cannot use higher magic until our child is safely born, its soul developed and fully resident within its body. But once that's done, he's capable of working with Fandariathras once more."

Every man in the ten-sided chamber looked on, appalled.

"We can't do that," one of them declared. "Give up magic while my wife does her duty? It's unacceptable. It's outrageous."

"This information must be suppressed," another man spoke up. "We cannot be expected to make such sacrifices. And this woman must go into a warding collar immediately. To think that a master-mage has been reduced to children's rhymes for months? It's horrible."

Of course, this doesn't happen, and Beatrice's final magnificent fuck-you is the fact that she has printed the ritual up in a pamphlet, and even as she has been standing there talking, this pamphlet has been mailed to every wife and daughter of a mage in Chasland. Afterwards, they plan to spread theis knowledge to other countries as well.

This is a lovely, fiercely feminist story that drew me in from the first page. The best fantasy stories, of course, are those who speak to the world we live in, and this book is for every young girl who wants to throw off the shackles of the culture she lives in and follow her heart, and every young boy who is not interested in displaying the kind of tough, stoic, twisted "masculinity" that is so often held up as what it means to be a man. (Ianthe is shown to be kind, gentle and nurturing, and most of all he listens to Beatrice. He realizes that true love never involves ownership, and he is willing to sacrifice for their future along with her.) I think this story is fantastic, and I hope others will as well.

View all my reviews

No comments: