|Cover design |
by Micaela Alcaino
Orbit, 15 April 2021
I'm grateful to the publisher for a free copy of The Midnight Bargain to consider for review.
Much fantasy - following, I suppose, the template of forerunners such as The Lord of the Rings - concerns itself primarily with the role of magic, gods, mythology and so on in perilous, world-shaking adventures. But of course it doesn't have to be like that. Given a fantasy world one can use its conventions to tell stories about everything - crime for example, or art, or industry.
Or, as here, romance.
The Midnight Bargain is Beatrice Clayborn's story. Beatrice is heiress to a moderately successful merchant who, after a number of bad deals, urgently needs some capital and wants to get it by arranging an advantageous marriage. For this purpose the family has come to the fashionable town of Bendleton to take part in the Bargaining Season, a yearly spectacle of balls and presentations. Beatrice fears the Season will see her paired off with some ugly but rich old man and forbidden from the magical research and learning that she secretly loves.
The plight of women in this society is truly desperate: on top of mores and customs reminiscent of the Regency period, they are forbidden to practice sorcerous arts that are open to young men and which in turn guarantee success, power and respect in wider society. To seal her fate, once married, Beatrice will be required, as her mother is, to wear a collar, the key held by her husband, that dampens her magical abilities.
What's she to do? Everything depends on a successful Season - Beatrice's father has mortgaged the family to the hilt, and cannot afford Beatrice to leave Bendleton without a husband. As wisps of scandal begin to circulate around Bendleton, suitors appraise her, and she encounters the mysterious - and wealthy - Ysbeta, Beatrice struggles to navigate the currents of polite society, continue to develop her magic, and keep secrets from her family (especially, from her annoying younger sister).
I really enjoyed this story of magic-with-manners. There's enough here of Jane Austen to hint at the strengths and conventions of a stultifying, patriarchal society, Polk then building on the implications of that when that society understands and practices magic. Yet the action is kept very personal, following Beatrice's progress through parties, card games and horse-rides by day - and dangerous, candle-lit rites in the attic at night (hence the title). Polk's worldbuilding makes this all seem utterly credible, and the author creates a gallery of characters who just convince, who just belong in this setting and act exactly as you know they would.
Great fun, with scathing insights into patriarchy (and plenty of rebellion against said patriarchy going on, much of it very subtle).
I would recommend.