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The Midnight Bargain by CL Polk (book review).

June 30, 2021 | By | Reply More

Beatrice Clayborn is a young woman about to be married off to the most eligible bachelor in order to secure her family’s fortunes and her younger sister’s prospects. Unfortunately, Beatrice doesn’t want to get married, she wants to become a master magician, which is a career choice open only to men. She is sure that in the books she has collected lies the secret to obtaining power, passed down through a network of women and hidden in plain sight for the intellectually curious to find.

Finally discovering the last missing book in a small shop, she clashes with the very wealthy Ysbeta Lavan, who also wants the book and her freedom. As an uneasy alliance begins to form, Beatrice meets Ysbeta’s brother, Ianthe, and suddenly finds herself wondering if marriage would be so bad after all. Can a woman achieve the impossible in a world designed for men and can any man love a woman who wants to be his equal in everything, not just marriage?

I’m an avid reader of fantasy and Science Fiction, but also count ‘Pride And Prejudice’ among my favourite books of all time, so I’m usually keen to try anything that can blend the feel of June Austen’s Britain with a good magic system and believable fantasy setting. However, there are so many tropes and traps for an author to fall into that it’s a difficult mix to get right. In ‘The Midnight Bargain’, C.L. Polk manages to get it spot on, avoiding too many clichés and making it a delight to read.

The reader is thrust immediately into the politics and parties of a hierarchical society, where social standing is the greatest factor in your family’s fortunes and opportunities. When I read books with this kind of setting, I’m always incredibly glad that I don’t have to perform for suitors at society balls, but I got great enjoyment from witnessing Beatrice’s clumsy interactions with the men she meets through the story. She is a feisty but not selfish character and her internal battle between what she wants for herself and what she wants for her family was nicely portrayed.

I was also really pleased that Ysbeta and Lavan were characters with plenty of shades of grey and that they continued to surprise me as we discovered their motivations and desires through the story. They were certainly not the predictable stereotypes you often find in this kind of period setting and I’ll freely admit that this is what I was expecting them to be. The relationships between these characters were handled really well and remained believable throughout. It was refreshing to see that the romance, while certainly important to the story, never dominated the plot and just added a layer of depth to the relationships between the characters.

The magic system was interesting, involving bonding to spirits to gain power and it was all integrated seamlessly into the story, avoiding the long sections of exposition you often find in fantasy novels. It’s quite a short novel for the fantasy genre so I was worried it would feel rushed or incomplete, but it’s a really well-developed world and I enjoyed exploring it with Beatrice.

I also really liked the network of women that we learn about over the course of the story, the little rebellions they make in plain sight and the power they secretly wield while letting the men think they’re completely in charge. Again, it sounds like we could be heading into cliché territory or some thinly veiled preaching about feminism, but it never crossed the line. There were plenty of hints and suggestions scattered throughout, just enough to give a tantalising glimpse at some of the secrets Beatrice doesn’t yet know but is desperate to find out, so that we could figure them out with her.

As far as I’m aware, this is a standalone novel and it works really well as a complete story. However, I’d love to see more set in this world. There’s such a lot that was touched on only lightly and great potential for further stories looking at some aspects of it in more detail. It would certainly be high on my wish list if a second book did appear.

Vinca Russell

June 2021

(pub: Orbit, 2021. 416 page paperback. Price: £ 8.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-0-35651-629-5)

check out website: www.orbitbooks.net

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Category: Books, Fantasy

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