The One with the Ambitious Mage

C.L. Polk, The Midnight Bargain (2020)

Annie from A Bookish Type was enthusiastic about this fantasy novel, and so I requested it from Netgalley. She highlighted the feminist approach of the novel, and I was all for it. (Also, it did help that I fell for the gorgeous cover art). But I’ll cut to the chase and confess that it didn’t quite work for me as much as I’d hoped. Maybe it was a case of me being disoriented by this particular type of fantasy. Maybe it is a case of too much buzz / too high expectations, the jury is still out there. So if you want to know, and if you’re familiar with fantasy, my advice would probably be to try it for yourself… and to come back here to discuss it with me!

The novel is set in a fantasy world that is closely similar to 18C or Regency England, but with magic. Some people have magical gifts that let them invoke powerful spirits, but only men have the right to learn to master that skill and use it. Women are expected to be pretty and not think much, so they should not learn any magic and if any, suppress it (by wearing a collar which is a sort of lock) when marrying because it might endanger the baby. And (male) heir producing is the main purpose of women in that fantasy land, where young women of the aristocracy go out into the world for a season to attract the best suitor. I was ok with the premises, but not really enamored with it. I felt that the feminist agenda was forcefully pushed into the story and that magic was just a fantasy addition to justify it.

Beatrice Clayborn’s family is near bankruptcy, and her father needs her to marry well, in order to save the family’s fortune. But Beatrice’s own dream is to learn magic and therefore, not to marry. She has been studying books in secret for years. She is certain that she would be able to help her father recoup their fortune using magic, but he doesn’t want to have a daughter who would do magic, that would be shameful and she might be persecuted. As Beatrice is heading for her season into the world, a series of parties and outings where she’s supposed to shine, she attracts the attention of wealthy young Ianthe Lavan. Despite herself, Beatrice finds herself falling for the charming young man. It would be right to marry Ianthe, but it would certainly mean the end of her magical aspirations. Beatrice also meets Ianthe’s sister Ysbeta, who just likes her wants a career over a marriage.

So basically, the author is mixing a traditional romance (the insta-love between Beatrice and Ianthe made me kind of cringe, especially as Ianthe is a bit of cardboard perfect boyfriend), fantasy / magic, with the heavier theme of career vs. marriage. The juxtaposition probably explains why the book pace feels uneven. The magic theme was not developed enough to my taste, and as a result I didn’t really get invested in Beatrice’s and Ysbeta’s passion. It was clear that these two wanted to have a career on an equal footing with men, but it seemed to be that it could have been running any business rather than grimoires and curses. And the fact that both girls are privileged and rather self-centered didn’t make them very endearing to me.

I think that the novel is targeted for a YA audience, but the ending seemed too rushed and everything tied up way too neatly for my liking. The fantasy world that the author built made it extra difficult to resolve the dilemma of career vs. marriage, and it is only thanks to a miracle (an implausible chain of events) that we are able to find a way out of the stalemate.

To sum it up, it was a fun ride out of our grey 2020 world (and one that makes me thankful that I live at a time where I can be married and still have a career), but it felt a bit frustrating to me.

Thanks to the publisher and Netgalley. I received a free copy of this book for review consideration.

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