Oh hey, it me, your favourite fantasy period romance fan. Words I thought the world would never hear. But hey, appaz after reading The House In The Cerulean Sea and actually quite enjoying full on steamy post-apocalyptic sci-fi erotic romance Deal With The Devil, C. L. Polk’s The Midnight Bargain is the latest romance story I can chalk down on my ‘thoroughly enjoyed’ list.
Meet Beatrice Clayborn, a sorceress who practices magic in secret, terrified of the day she’ll be locked into a marital collar that will cut off her powers in order protect her unborn children from becoming possessed by spirits. 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. During the formalities of Bargaining Season Beatrice meets the handsome, compassionate, and fabulously wealthy Ianthe Lavan, aaand you can guess where this is going. The more Beatrice becomes entangled with Ianthe, 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?
It’s a brilliant premise, with conflict and turmoil baked into its foundation stones. Beatrice must choose between her calling as a mage or the love that develops between her and Ianthe. The two are, by their nature, incompatible. But, of course, it’s not only herself who will be affected by the decision. Perhaps all things considered she could deal with the personal heartbreak of a lost love, but could she also condemn her family to social shame and financial ruin? Although I’ve not read many romance books, I’m familiar enough with the genre to know a happy ending was all but guaranteed, and yet the whole way through Polk maintained a wonderful sense of narrative tension and I was on tenterhooks through all the twists and turns and deepening of the conflict in more and more complex directions. Anyone who thinks romance books are dull cos you know things will work out in the end are misunderstanding how emotive writing works I think and this book really made me appreciate just how talented good romance writers are.
Polk’s writing style is exactly the style I enjoy as well; evocative but not flowery, with every sentence punching above its weight to paint a picture of setting and character. They actually made me feel like I could smell the rose-scented perfumes of the debutantes and the orange blossom of the courtyards that bustled with the hum and chatter of young, wealthy socialites. I could feel the sand beneath Beatrice’s bare feet and hear the soft hiss of the surf as she ran along a quiet, moonlit beach in the still night. It flowed so smoothly into my mind, in a way that really transported me there. Flowery, purple prose isn’t my thing. My own opinion is that storytelling and ‘prose’ are two separate things, and prose is usually a barrier that obstructs good storytelling. It’s why I’m a bit wary of reading stuff like Alix E. Harrow’s The Ten Thousand Doors of January or Patrick Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind. There’s a few different storytelling styles I really appreciate, the first being the stripped back, no frills, action-oriented style of crime noir writers like Raymond Chandler and the other is the evocative, descriptive flowing style of Polk. Other writers that are able to do this are people like P. Djèlí Clark, Fonda Lee and George R. R. Martin i.e. my favourite authors and to me this represents the pinnacle of writing skill.
It would be remiss of me to finish this review without mentioning Nadi, the delightful luck spirit who Beatrice befriends through the course of her spellcasting. She’s excellent. Delightfully wicked and egocentric in a wonderfully endearing and mischievous way, she and Beatrice begin their relationship in an uncomfortably antagonistic but mutually beneficial manner; Beatrice strikes bargains with Nadi, so that Nadi will provide her with the ‘luck’ she needs to make the right social connection or not to lose all her father’s money in a high stakes card game. In return Beatrice allows Nadi to take temporary residence in her body, so Nadi can experience the physical world through Beatrice. It results in some wonderfully funny scenes, like Beatrice trying to keep control of Nadi while she demands several glasses of fruit punch or compels Beatrice to disgrace herself in public by scoffing more dainty sandwiches than is socially acceptable. As a side note I lap that stuff up by the way; the social mores of this society, and of Bargaining Season in particular, were so fun to read about. Social etiquette plays a big part in how the characters interact with each other and it’s almost a scandal when Ianthe calls Beatrice by her first name in public (as opposed to ‘Miss Clayborn’) because it shows a familiarity and possible relationship developing between the two. That kind of thing is probably my favourite thing a writer can do, refract character through interactions determined by deep-rooted social structures. It’s the mark of truly intelligent writing. Anyway, over the course of the book Beatrice and Nadi develop a lovely friendship and even though this is a romance story, I think it was the relationship between sorceress and luck spirit that I enjoyed the most.
Just to return to to the spirits by the way, it’s the spirits that the social system of Beatrice’s world is warding off by ‘collaring’ married women, dampening their magic and preventing spirits from possessing the bodies of unborn children in the womb so that they can live in a human body and experience the desires of the flesh they’re denied in the ethereal spirit realm. The threat is a real one, but the practice is exploited by men to control their wives and daughters by restricting sorcery to a male-dominated field while women are collared and reduced to a social role as nothing more than child-bearers. Now that I’m thinking about it and putting it into words, it’s not the only method of control either. The book has a lot to say about sexism obviously, but it also talks a lot of insightful stuff to say about class too, which might seem weird in a book where rich people are all the protagonists. For example, the Clayborns’s are among the top tier of the social class, but financially they are nearing destitution following an investment opportunity gone awry. And so while they are, by most estimations, part of the social elite, they’re at the bottom of the food chain within the group they’re part of. And so Beatrice is constantly told that she must defer to their ‘betters’, they’re the ones in the inferior position here and it’s a stroke of genuine fortune that someone as wealthy as Ianthe Lavan would pay her any notice at all and so she must not act above her station. It’s pointed out that while women must defer to men, those lower down the pecking order must also defer to their social superiors. While personally I don’t have much/any sympathy for a wealthy guy who lost his fortune in a risky investment, the issue of wealth and social stratification is explored much better that I’ve articulated it here anyway. Similarly, Beatrice’s father uses money to exert control over her. Not only as a man, but also as the source of her only income, she is forced by many layers of social expectation to be dependent on him and to perform her duties as an eligible bachelorette at his whim.
The Midnight Bargain is a fantastic book. Incredibly well-written, engaging and exciting as well as intelligent and insightful with a style that transports you into the world of the book in a way that feels escapist and untethers you from reality but keeps one foot on the ground enough to have some great things to say about some of the issues that affect us in the real world. Top notch read.
The Midnight Bargain is published by small press Erewhon Books. Def check out their other books on their website erewhonbooks.com and their Twitter @ErewhonBooks. Did you enjoy this review? Find it useful? Follow the blog and never miss a post!