C. L. Polk’s 2020 The Midnight Bargain is a secondary world fantasy, due out in October.
Beatrice Clayborn could be one of Chasland’s greatest magi — if only she were a man. But she is a woman and the only roles she’s allowed are those of wife and mother. Oh, she can do a little magic once she is too old to bear children, but even that permission is grudgingly given and strictly circumscribed.
But women will hone their talents, disregarding patriarchal restrictions. There are grimoires intended for women, disguised but recognizable to those with talent. Beatrice, desperate to escape matrimony, has been methodically searching them out. The final volume she needs, the one that will permit her to “summon a greater spirit and propose the pact of the great bargain,” thus becoming a mage of unquestionable power, is one quick purchase away.
Ysbeta Lavan also seeks magical power, for much the reasons as Beatrice. Unlike Beatrice, Ysbeta has money and social position. Beatrice is standing in the bookshop, holding the grimoire in her hands … but she hands it over to the other woman. She is afraid that Ysbeta could use her wealth and family connections to hurt Beatrice’s family. Ysbeta does promise Beatrice that she can visit and read the grimoire, but Beatrice fears that this promise will not be honored.
Lie becomes truth once Ysbeta discovers that while her magical talents may have allowed her to locate the necessary work, she cannot read it. Beatrice can. Separately, neither woman will be able to master the techniques to bargain safely with a greater spirit in time to avoid being married off. Together, they may be able to succeed.
The unexpected bargain comes with a delicious bonus: Ysbeta’s brother Ianthe. Ianthe is good-looking, charming, immediately fond of Beatrice, and (best of all) regards women as people. (It helps that Ysbeta and Ianthe come from a nation less misogynist than Chasland). Beatrice did not enter into her pact with Ysbeta in order to find a husband, but Ianthe would be a fine catch if that were the result.
Ianthe is charming, kind, and wealthy. He’s also smart. Smart enough to work out that Beatrice and Ysbeta are dabbling in magic. Trained in magic himself, he has an all too vivid awareness that magic can have unintended but dire consequences in the hands of untrained enthusiasts. He would like to help them; he’s afraid of outing them; he’s afraid what will happen if he doesn’t help.
Of course, were he to marry Beatrice, he could supervise her studies.
It’s just too bad that Ianthe’s mother doesn’t see Beatrice as an attractive marital prospect. Beatrice’s father has speculated unwisely and lost most of the family fortune. Beatrice herself is charming but she doesn’t have the business acumen that Ianthe’s mother, a businesswoman in her own right, wants in a daughter-in-law. No, Beatrice will not do.
Beatrice’s father has his own plans. He’ll find his daughter a husband who is both socially acceptable and wealthy. A man who will assuredly crush Beatrice’s magical ambitions.
I enjoyed the author’s previous novel, Witchmark, enough that I couldn’t wait to read the ARC (Advanced Readers Copy) I was sent. When you read this, know I sat on the review for four months…
Mr. Clayborn, Beatrice’s father, isn’t a villain; he just a sexist knucklehead with an exaggerated faith in his own business skills. I grant that the differences between villain and sexist knucklehead may be subtle. But the husband that he picks for his daughter, is a moustache-twirling cad. A real villain, which makes the problems facing Beatrice that much worse.
Chasland is obviously modeled on Regency England. But there’s one major difference: magic. The magic in this setting often involves making deals with spirits, deals that can be dangerous to pregnant women. Babies in utero can end up possessed by spirits, spirits of great power but who are also capricious, selfish, and lacking self-control (imagine a sugar-addled toddler with the power of a genie). There are several ways to minimize the danger. Chasland being Chasland, they’ve opted for a solution that hurts women while protecting men. I sense that there is a moral here.
As good as Witchmark is, The Midnight Bargain is better.