ARC Review: “The Midnight Bargain” by C.L. Polk

The carriage drew closer to Bookseller’s Row, and Beatrice Clayborn drew in a hopeful breath before she cast her spell.

The Midnight Bargain, Chapter 1 opening

Author: C.L. Polk
Publication Date: October 13th 2020
Publisher: Erewhon Books
Genre: Fantasy, Romance
Format: eBook
Find it on: NetGalley, Goodreads

Many thanks to the author, C.L. Polk, and publisher Erewhon Books for providing a digital ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review.

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 mage 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?

From Goodreads

Review

C.L. Polk’s recent fantasy-romance release, The Midnight Bargain, is a charming tale of magic, politics, and spirits delivered in a beautifully written package. Beatrice Clayborn makes her debut into proper society in quest for a suitor against her will. As her father’s final investment and last hope, her actions will make or break their family. Amidst this intense pressure Beatrice still yet cultivates her magic in secret, hoping against hope for a life unchained. She’s on the hunt for grimoires – books enchanted with a hidden code that divulge secrets of the men’s tight-lipped world of magic – when she happens upon Ysbeta and Ianthe in a bookstore. What begins as a tense face-off blossoms into an unexpected friendship as they dabble in dangerous business capable of either unleashing their power or destroying them in the process.

Beatrice is a bold heroine of humble origin. Readers can easily sympathize with her yearning for a world unreined, where she can achieve her full potential. The world that’s been crafted is terribly unfair to women, locking them into unhealthy relationships, using them as bargaining chips, and weakening if not snuffing out their power completely, citing fear of spiritborne children. It was a bit unclear how infertile women fit into this structure where women are either thornback rebel mages or placid, restrained mothers. (It didn’t seem like there was much middle ground..) But glossing over that it’s clear the position we’re meant to take as readers. Ianthe, Beatrice’s father, and in fact every male character we’re presented with is either actively campaigning to maintain this system or passively complicit. Those who are reasonable and open to conversation are potential catalysts for change but even they are difficult to convince. And of course as we know societies themselves are slow to change. On whole it’s an unenviable position, and one unfortunately still present some places in the world today.

Moving on to other elements, the spirit mechanism in the book was quite exciting. We only got to hear of a few spirits unfortunately, though, and only really got to know one more fully. It would have been nice to get a richer picture of the breadth of spirits and their capabilities. Similarly the men’s mage chapterhouses were fascinating but glossed over a bit, presumably since we follow Beatrice who’s a female and outsider. Ianthe’s membership, however, and other events could have presented an opportunity by which to lift the veil a bit and add meaningful complexity to their business.

Overall this was a neat fantasy. Themes on breaking the shackles of patriarchy were a bit heavy handed but execution of the story on whole was well done and read easily. The romance element and various entanglements were also fun to read. This would be entertaining for any YA fantasy fans, or anyone who wants a dash of old time courtship with their magic.

Background cover photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

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