The Midnight Bargain, C.L. Polk (Erewhon Books 978-1-64566-007-1, $25.95, 384pp, hc) October 2020.
In C.L. Polk’s sparkling third novel, The Midnight Bargain, Beatrice Clayborn is a young woman with a terrible problem. As a debutante participating in “Bargaining Season,” she must capture the attention of an appropriately wealthy and suitable man who will propose marriage and thus save her family from an ever-increasing threat of poverty and social humiliation (her father has made one too many poor investment decisions). To anyone familiar with Jane Austen, this scenario will read as quite familiar, but Polk writes historical fantasy and thus Beatrice’s situation has a magical spin. In her nation of Chasland, women are collared by their husbands to block their magic and prevent a spirit from taking the body of their unborn children. Men are free to perform all manner of magic, while women lose all their power in trade for the privilege of childbirth. Beatrice has been studying magic in secret in hopes of dodging the grimness of the collar. But now the season is upon her and, as she ponders tearfully one afternoon, there is little time left.
She had no skills. She had no connections. She didn’t even have the solidity of a family reputation for business.
All she had to give was her strength in the power. All she was worth was the children she could give a man. A man with riches but no power of his own would be eager for such a bride…. She couldn’t expect to aim any higher.
What is a smart and talented young woman to do in Chasland? Beatrice is searching for a certain grimoire which holds the key to becoming a powerful sorceress. She hopes, if she can make herself powerful enough, her father will value her for something more than her potential bride price. When she meets the Lavan siblings, Ysabeta who seeks the grimoire for a similar rescue and Ianthe who attracts Beatrice with his good looks and kind heart, Beatrice finds herself forming relationships that she never imagined possible. But can any woman really break free of Chasland’s societal rules? And can two novices control the magic they need to challenge those rules?
From the moment Beatrice and the Lavans meet (very early in the novel), Polk does not let up on the tension, rolling out one collision of manners and magic after another in the ensuing chapters. A happy ending will require a lot from everyone, though, most of whom are not inclined to help. Beatrice and Ysabeta are looking at bleak futures, but the most galling thing is that almost everyone thinks they should be grateful for what they’re getting.
Oh, how I loved the heck out of this book!
Throughout The Midnight Bargain, Polk embraces upper-crust Regency style with its finely gloved snark and snipe and manages to convey not only a sense of foreboding into the narrative but plenty of sly humor as well. The magic is well-defined, while the interplay between the various characters is sublime. (Beatrice and Ysabeta reciting spells! Beatrice and her sister Harriet squabbling over proper etiquette! Beatrice and the spirit Nadi bargaining over kisses and sweets! Ianthe’s mother! Beatrice’s mother! The odious Danton Maisonette! IANTHE!) The witty exchanges are indeed sparkling and the verbal cuts are of the sharpest varieties. Polk is so clearly in her element that readers will be carried away by the sheer radiance of her smartly crafted prose and, like me, sorely miss Beatrice when they make that final and satisfying turn of the page.
Colleen Mondor, Contributing Editor, is a writer, historian, and reviewer who co-owns an aircraft leasing company with her husband. She is the author of “The Map of My Dead Pilots: The Dangerous Game of Flying in Alaska” and reviews regularly for the ALA’s Booklist. Currently at work on a book about the 1932 Mt. McKinley Cosmic Ray Expedition, she and her family reside in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska. More info can be found on her website: www.colleenmondor.com.
This review and more like it in the January 2021 issue of Locus.
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