The Midnight Bargain
Women’s fiction hides under the guise of fantasy and romance in The Midnight Bargain, a sometimes clever but disappointingly never wise, novel.
Beatrice Clayborn is in town for bargaining season in Chasland, aka The Season in Regency England + Magic. She wants books not a husband, because a husband will put a literal collar on her after marriage to keep her from doing magic whereas books – of a special kind – can teach her how to summon spirits that specialize in luck, fortune, or knowledge. These spirits offer their specialty in exchange for the chance to live within their summoners’ bodies for periods, “ride” in them and, to a degree, dictate their actions. Beatrice needs luck and fortune in particular, because her family is going swiftly broke. In pursuit of one such book, Beatrice encounters Ianthe and Ysbeta Lavan, siblings of great wealth and influence from a neighboring (and far more modern in its gender roles) country. Ysbeta and Beatrice strike up an alliance and Ianthe and Beatrice strike up a romance.
There’s very little of the magical in the magic of this book. For a fantasy, we glimpse few of the possibilities of magic beyond the binding of spirits, which comes across as a creepy form of semi-possession. There aren’t enough of the subtle, original, pockets of wonder that define truly imaginative fantasy; I can recall off the top of my head one artistic image conjured from smoke and one self-fanning fan in this book, but that’s it. Magic in The Midnight Bargain is like a sharp knife or a full wallet – a tool of power, not art. Polk’s decision not to expand on the magical element of the world is a missed opportunity.
Much like an assembly ball in a small town where all the attendees are irritatingly familiar, the characters in this tale are interchangeable with any of the characters in the deluge of regencies released in the past few years. Beatrice is a woman trapped in a man’s world, her father utters gems like “Displaying too much cleverness can make a woman seem less appealing” (which I’ve come to expect in these books as much as the ‘I Love You’ between lovers), and Ianthe is The Perfect Egalitarian Man, although his claim of the title is an empty victory seeing as every other man of marriageable age is a misogynist or oblivious. This book is about as subtle as a child jumping onto its parents’ bed in the morning screaming ‘ARE YOU AWAKE YET?’. Beatrice’s country is so horrible that the men even eat evilly; Ysbeta’s intended actually eats songbirds, chewing “the little creature whole, his teeth grinding the delicate flesh and fragile bones to morsels”.
The story is told in third person, which chaperones Beatrice for its entirety. The chapters are long, but the writing itself is a deft balance of intelligent and unpretentious. Polk paces the story well, and creates believable obstacles and twists in the story, until the last act, which is rushed and has solutions materialize out of thin air. The romance between Ianthe and Beatrice is a weak B story – it doesn’t get the page time it needs to compete with Beatrice’s friendship with Ysbeta and Beatrice’s magic-related aspirations.
There’s a lot in this novel that could be thought provoking; the ethics of binding a spirit and the nature of what it means to possess and be possessed are both things I wanted The Midnight Bargain to reckon with – but there’s a sense that the story isn’t so much avoiding its more complex questions as it is unaware of them.
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