THE MIDNIGHT BARGAIN by C.L. Polk
Orbit, p/b, £8.99
Reviewed by Pauline Morgan
It is curious that while many readers tend to stick to their preferred genre when choosing their next book, readers of fantasy have a habit of pursuing the odd volume from a different genre. Some have been known to admit to reading Regency Romance, Georgette Heyer being a particular go-to author. An interest in historical eras, the London of Sherlock Holmes, are the likely influences that led to the Steam Punk sub-genre of fantasy. Romance and the supernatural cross-fertilize to feed the interest in urban fantasy.
In The Midnight Bargain, C.L. Polk has created a fantasy world that is heavily influenced by the Regency period and Jane Austin. The Bargaining Season is a period of a few weeks when marriageable girls of reasonable status attend balls and parties with the hope of attracting the attention of a suitable bachelor seeking a wife. Advantageous arrangements are manipulated by parents. Beatrice Clayborn does not want to get married. She wants to practice as a sorceress. Normally this is a profession for men only. It isn’t that women cannot be powerful in the field, but when they marry, they are locked into a necklace that suppresses their abilities. There is a logic behind this. There are spirits and demons who desire to possess a human, and when a woman is pregnant, the foetus has yet to acquire a soul. If possessed in the womb, the child can be very dangerous. She and the child are subsequently destroyed.
While Beatrice understands that she needs to marry a man of means to stop her father from going bankrupt, she doesn’t want her ability to do magic taken away from her. She feels she needs to make a bargain with a great spirit and has been looking for the grimoire that will give her the information she needs. But when she finds it, it is snatched from her by the very wealthy Ysbeta Lavan. Determined to get the book back, Beatrice makes a bargain with Nadi, a spirit of fortune. He will get Ysbeta to give her the book for simple favours such as cake, a dance and a first kiss before midnight. Ysbeta’s very eligible brother, Ianthe, takes a fancy to her, and it is from him that Beatrice claimed the kiss.
As with any society romance, there are obstacles to be overcome, other than the fact that neither Beatrice nor Ysbeta want to marry because it would mean having to wear the magic suppressing collar. Ianthe’s mother doesn’t think Beatrice is a suitable match for her son, and both sets of parents have their own ideas of who their daughters will marry. The outcome of this kind of novel is inevitable, but it is the way that the characters solve the problems and overcome obstacles that is more important. There are moments of lightness, particular in Beatrice’s dealings with Nadi.
While this is a delightful ‘regency’ romp, the novel does also highlight sexual inequalities. Only men can become mages, women are oppressed by men who see female sorcerers only as breeding stock. Both Beatrice and Ysbeta are the kind of heroine who needs to fight against expectations. They may not change society, but they do take small steps towards emancipation.
The quality of this book is demonstrated by its short-listing for the 2021 World Fantasy Award.