Book review: The Midnight Bargain by C.L. Polk

Title: The Midnight Bargain by C.L. Polk

Publisher: Erewhon

Publication date: 13 October 2020

Genre: Adult | Fantasy

Page extent: 384 pages

Rating:

Synopsis:

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?

C.L Polk is the author of one of the books, Witchmark, that got me back into reading and blogging after several years without it. So I was inordinately excited to read her new book, The Midnight Bargain. I was a little wary during the first 20%, but after that, the plot and characters really begin to shine and I couldn’t stop reading!

The Midnight Bargain follows Beatrice, a young ingenue in her first bargaining season, whereby gentlemen try to woo and win over women for marriage. Beatrice needs a good match, as her father’s fortunes were decimated by a bad investment and now the family is close to ruin. But if she marries, Beatrice is forced into a binding collar, which removes all her magic in order to protect any unborn child who might be possessed by a spirit. Beatrice is torn between wanting to help her family and wanting to pursue her dreams of freedom without a binding collar. It becomes an even harder decision when she falls in love with one of the gentlemen, Ianthe. But she has found someone who understands her desires in Ianthe’s sister, Ysbeta, who also does not want to marry. The two plan to help each other bind a greater spirit which will prevent anyone from marrying them.

The first 20% of this book I did struggle. C.L Polk, along with V.E Schwab, is one of those authors that I really struggle to care about their female characters because they are just so annoying. I felt this in Witchmark with Grace, a character we’re supposed to care about when she wants to enslave her brother for her own power? Yeah no thanks (it’s why I haven’t ever read the sequel to Witchmark despite how much I adored that book). And I worried during the first 20% of the book because Beatrice, our main character, starts out a little bratty and whiny. It really isn’t clear why she wants to pursue magic, and thus the initial conflict between magic and marriage that will save her family doesn’t feel particularly strong. It seems like a whiny selfish girl not wanting to help her family. Which is fine if that was who Beatrice was! But she was portrayed as really wanting to save her family and give up her life for them, so it felt very contradictory when you can’t really see any strong reasons for why she wants magic at such great expense to her family. Add that to the insufferable Harriet, Beatrice’s sister who seems to care naught a single bit for her sister, doesn’t care what Beatrice might desire or more importantly, what Beatrice might suffer. So I did spend the first 20% thinking oh god not another book with insufferable female characters.

BUT! PUSH THROUGH! Because after about 20%, everything really changes. As Beatrice meets Ysbeta and Ianthe, we really see her personality blossom, along with her two desires: saving her family and being a mage. I really loved this exploration of individualistic vs collective goals in this society, and to see Beatrice’s struggle to reconcile her wish to save her family with her wish to not be shackled and sold off in a marriage contract, no matter how much she loved Ianthe. I really appreciated the emphasis on Beatrice’s family and the strength of her love for them throughout the book, no matter what happened. A lot of other books exploring this, the struggle never really feels fully real – you always kind of know of course the person is going to pick themselves. And I loved that that feeling wasn’t there. I had no idea what Beatrice would do and I think that’s down to the strength in the second half of portraying this sense of selfish, more individualistic style of living alongside the hopes of her family who have bankrupted themselves for her.

I adored the friendship with Ysbeta. The fire in these two as they try to find a way out of marriage really helps bring Beatrice’s desires into a much stronger and clearer light, and thus my initial problem with her characterisation in the first 20% disappears. They have such a strong friendship and I really appreciated Ysbeta’s character. In a book so focused on marriage and tying yourself away to someone, Ysbeta was a breath of fresh air as someone who knows she doesn’t ever want to get married. I very much read her as somewhere on the ace spectrum, though it isn’t on page rep, as her desires to not get married felt like they went beyond just her wishes to be a mage and travel the world.

I’m also a huge Ianthe fan. In a society such as this, he of course does not start off perfect. I loved that Beatrice was unafraid to stand up to him and the two had so many fierce discussions around the morals and ethics surrounding Chasland society and culture. The way she challenges him made the relationship feel so much more positive and really makes you root for them because Ianthe is so willing to change and grow for Beatrice.

I really enjoyed this book. Despite my intial concerns during the first 20%, they were completely blown away by the rest of the book. I loved the emphasis on friendship, Ysbeta is pretty much one of the best female characters I’ve read all year and the relationship was very sweet.

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