The Midnight Bargain reminded me why I love fantasy novels, and then wrecked me with its social commentary about a Regency-inspired world. This is a story about women feeling trapped by social constraints, scrambling to escape, and discovering along the way that transforming a society is more satisfying than just saving oneself. I loved the book’s drawing room politics, djinn-inspired magic, chosen family, and the way the story didn’t shy away from the heroine’s ambition, and her reluctance to be a wife and mother. I have rarely been quite this satisfied by the resolution of the classic love vs. freedom quandary for women in a restrictive society.
Beatrice is a young woman from a country estate whose family has come to town to find her a husband during the intense social whirl known as the “bargaining season.” She’s barely able to feign interest in balls and dress fittings, and instead spends her time scouring the city’s bookstores for coded books containing spells by underground sorceresses. During bargaining season, Mages, politicians, and merchants select young women with wealth and latent magical talent for marriage contracts. What Beatrice lacks in polish, she makes up for in her visibly strong magical aura.
But the men her father introduces her to are looking for biddable wives to give birth to magically talented sons, not over-educated women fascinated by magic, as Beatrice is. Upper class women in Chasland are discouraged from doing even simple charms, and aren’t allowed to participate in magical schools or societies. Married women are forced to wear warded collars that bar them from using magic during their reproductive years. But Beatrice is a self-taught magician, and she’s one final spell away from being able to permanently harness a powerful spirit, and proving to her father that she could be useful to his flailing business as a “thornback” spinster Mage. Beatrice wants to rebuild the family fortunes so her socially precocious sister, Harriet, can make a good marriage, but she also wants to learn magic for herself.
Unfortunately for Beatrice, she’s not the only one looking for this particular spellbook. Ysbeta and Ianthe Lavan are the youngest members of a powerful family hailing from a fashionable and more permissive province that felt vaguely North African inspired. They are the most eligible singletons of the season, and when they run into Beatrice at a bookstore, beautiful and ruthless Ysbeta uses that social power to take the book for herself. But her equally gorgeous brother Ianthe is a big softy, who, like most men, is unaware that women are writing secret books about magic at all. He and Beatrice are equally fascinated with one another, and he brokers a deal for the two women to become friends and share the book. If nothing else, Beatrice hopes her social connection with the Lavans will distract her parents from noticing her lackluster husband-hunting efforts. Instead, she finds herself drawn into their orbit, unsure if she can trust either of the siblings with her secrets.
The taut dynamic between Beatrice, Ysbeta, and Ianthe was delicious to read. They circle one another over polite teas and parlor games, unsure of the others’ intentions. Like Beatrice, Ysbeta is hoping that magic will help her escape marriage. Her powerful mother has brokered a trade deal to marry Ysbeta to one of Ianthe’s friends. Both Beatrice and Ysbeta are isolated in their magical pursuits, and I loved their wary friendship and their growing awareness of other women illicitly performing magic. Ysbeta has an extensive collection of magical books, but she needs Beatrice to decode them, so the two negotiate for magic lessons. Beatrice and Ysbeta both crave freedom—although Beatrice also wants recognition, while Ysbeta is just hoping to avoid being shackled by marriage. Their desperation means it takes them a long time to trust one another, especially when loyal Ysbeta is torn between helping Beatrice, or supporting her brother’s obvious attraction to her friend. I loved their slow-burn enemies-to-friends storyline.
Beatrice and Ysbeta’s magic lessons are intense and dangerous; the risk of their discovery while half-dressed and in the middle of a ritual made these scenes almost sexier than Ianthe and Beatrice’s push-pull love affair.
Beatrice leaned toward Ysbeta, her voice so low it only carried to her ears. “I want magic, Ysbeta. Not just to escape the marriage collar. I want the life of a thornback daughter, secretly aiding her father in his business affairs, but I will save my family and get Harriet into ladies’ college. I will finance her bargaining season.”
“Ianthe will gladly pay for all of that.”
“I know he would. But I want magic aside from all that. I want it because it should be mine.”
Ysbeta went still, her eyes huge. “You don’t want him.”
“I do,” Beatrice said. “But I want magic too. I can’t have them both—Ysbeta, what would you choose, if it were you?”
Ysbeta’s reflection pressed her lips together. “I’m not in your position. I can’t imagine the choice you face. If a man turned my head the way Ianthe does yours, I’d be in agony.”
Ianthe is an idealistic outsider from a more progressive culture, and he disarms Beatrice into telling him her actual opinions, then shocks her by enjoying her thoughts on the patriarchy. Like many an independent heroine, Beatrice has zero interest in love. After all, my girl’s only got a couple of weeks to avoid being forced into marriage. But even Beatrice can’t help but be attracted to the Ianthe, the hottest dude on the marriage market. They sneak kisses during parties, and argue about magical politics in curricles, two of my favorite things.
But even in Ianthe’s homeland, married women are blocked from advanced magical study, and wear locked collars during pregnancy to protect against bearing a baby possessed by a malevolent spirit. The punishment for not complying is death, and only a woman’s husband has the key to her collar. Beatrice can’t see a way to reconcile her magical career goals with marriage to any man. I love a seemingly insurmountable obstacle to romance, and this was a doozy. I couldn’t figure out how they were going to solve it, and I adored the resolution. But first, falling in love means we get plenty of angst.
“All right. It’s unfair,” Ianthe said. “But how can we change it? There is no way to protect a sorceress from bearing a spiritborn without the warding collar. That’s something you can’t deny.”
“But no one is looking for another way,” Beatrice said. “The current system lays all of the restriction, all the responsibility, and all of the burden on sorceresses. Men aren’t inconvenienced in any way. They may do whatever they like. For them, the system isn’t broken, so why look for a solution?”
“But you love me,” Ianthe said. “Why would you refuse me?”
Beatrice’s throat went tight. She fought for a calm breath; she blinked at the stars and made a wish. “Because I love you. You are so kind. You try so hard to understand. You love magic as much as I do, and that’s the problem.”
Ianthe licked his lips. “Go on.”
The ship rose and fell with the ocean’s breath, and Beatrice used it to breathe calm, to focus on getting the words out without breaking further. “I can’t let magic go and still be happy. Not even for you.”
“You can still do magic,” Ianthe said. “If we know you’re not pregnant, then we can—”
“You can take the collar off,” Beatrice said. “If I can only use my magic when you deem it safe, does that magic belong to me, or you?”
“It would only be for safety,” Ianthe said. “I don’t presume to own your magic.”
“But I would only be freed because you released me,” Beatrice said. “This isn’t a tightly laced set of stays or shoes that pinch my toes for the sake of turning up in fashion. It’s my freedom! And even if that thing was not around my neck one day, it would be—as soon as you decided you wanted another child, or thought there might be one, or my courses were late by a day. If you marry me, you will own my magic, no matter how hard we pretend. And I will hate you if you do that to me. I will hate you, and it will tear me apart.”
I don’t usually like insta-passion, but I think Beatrice needed a strong pull of attraction; I wouldn’t have believed anything less given her reasons for not marrying. In a book filled with men behaving like controlling assholes, Ianthe stands out as caring. He starts the book ignorant of how restrictive society is to women, even in the relatively progressive culture he comes from. Through his relationship with Beatrice…
Beatrice is talented, and passionate about using those talents. She speaks her mind even when it gets her into trouble, because she’s too desperate to be circumspect. And she has a tendency to get into scrapes of her own making. As much as I loved Beatrice, and appreciated her imperfections, Nadi, Beatrice’s amoral, fun-seeking spirit friend, steals every scene she appears in. The most effective magic comes from calling on spirits, and letting them possess your body for brief periods in exchange for a wish. They get a taste of corporeal experience, and you get whatever you want. It’s a dangerous game for anyone, because spirits are hard to control once they’ve inhabited you, but it’s social suicide for women.
So of course, Beatrice decides to invite pleasure-oriented Nadi to tag along for a dance, too many cups of gin punch, and a high stakes card game. In fairness, Beatrice always has a good reason for requesting Nadi’s help. As a reader, I found Beatrice’s comfort with losing control over her body disquieting but fascinating. When she and Nadi inhabit the same body, Beatrice gets a taste of what it’s like to only pay attention to your own desires, even if it means dancing on the beach in your nightgown at midnight. Beatrice can’t afford to directly confront condescending nobles who titter at her rusticity, but Nadi has no problem causing mishaps to befall anyone who bothers her host. Like Beatrice’s relationship to Ysbeta, Nadi’s allegiance to Beatrice is unclear at first, and I loved seeing them learn to trust and respect one another, despite the messages Beatrice receives from the magical establishment about the danger of spirits.
There are many other elements of The Midnight Bargain’s funhouse mirror version of Regency class dynamics that I adored. I loved the book’s Ishiguro-esque feeling of constraint and foreboding, coupled with the relief of the HEA. I appreciated the depiction of class dynamics that gave wealth and social power to a few women, while offering the ability to work (magic) to working class women with less social power. Perhaps my favorite part was how the book’s magical restrictions on women made me think about contemporary social restrictions to “protect” women.
Unfortunately, once Beatrice’s dad notices her disinterest in marriage, he doesn’t handle it well.
Which brings me to The Midnight Bargain’s main flaw; not punishing Beatrice’s dad enough for my bloodthirsty little heart.
I hated this dude, and it wasn’t enough for Beatrice to win. I wanted him destroyed. Beatrice isn’t focused isn’t on hurting awful men, she just wants to empower and rescue women. She gives powerful men opportunities to do the right thing. Mostly, these men disappoint her, as she expects. I do love a story where it’s not just the heroine who finds her freedom in a restrictive society, but where women organize together. So even though I wanted Beatrice to bathe in the blood of her enemies, I was willing to settle for her dad just hating everything she does with her life, while feeling embarrassed by his own failures.
Beatrice and the Lavans are young people with limited political power, who are frustrated by the oppressive systems of their world. They start the book wanting to just live their best life, but by the end, they’re trying to transform their society in dramatic ways. I loved the sisterhood of sorcery in this book, and how the romantic conflict kept me guessing without overshadowing the friendships. Readers who like cultural worldbuilding with a feminist lens, and don’t mind a quick romantic connection that takes most of the book to resolve, might like The Midnight Bargain.