It’s the start of Bargaining Season, the yearly weeks-long event where prominent young men woo eligible young women in the hopes of securing a bride. At least that’s what it’s supposed to be. In reality, the men bribe and buy their brides from fathers eager to benefit off their daughters’ backs. Of the three nations who participate in Bargaining Season, Chasland is the least advanced and most conservative of the group, and it’s there that Beatrice Clayborn grew up. The fear that a spirit might take over the body of an unborn child has led to the creation of silver collars that block out magic. In other countries the women only wear the collar when she might be pregnant, but in Chasland, the collar is locked around her throat at marriage and not removed until after menopause. Beatrice, who is secretly teaching herself magic, can think of no worse fate than to be sold off to a man and denied access to the one thing that makes her truly happy. So she hatches a plan.
Of course, that plan immediately begins to fray when she meets the gorgeous Lavan siblings, the brash Ysabeta and her dashing brother Ianthe. She hoped to skate through Bargaining Season unnoticed, but her heart yearns for Ianthe as much as it does for magic. Soon there are several suitors vying for her hand, despite her best efforts. With her father’s demands increasing and her options dwindling, Beatrice will have to choose: a life of faux-freedom married to a man she loves but can never be equals with or one of magic but where she will be hidden away as the shame of her family. But what if there is a third choice? What if she can bring the whole sexist system crashing to the ground?
For The Midnight Bargain, Polk chose the Regency era as her setting. If you’ve read Jane Austen, Polk’s novel will feel familiar. While there are glimpses of the poor and impoverished in Austen’s novels, the main characters are usually middle or upper class. Money can buy a lot of things, but respect must be earned, something the rich often forget. When a person’s status is tied to their wealth, and their wealth is tied to the exploitation of others, maintaining a strict social hierarchy becomes even more important. With Austen, we don’t necessarily need to see the poor in order to see the hypocrisy of the rich; they do that job well enough on their own.
Polk plays in historical settings of opulence and industry without ignoring the oppressions that facilitate that opulence and industry. Her closest literary cousin besides Jane Austen is probably Zen Cho. Both found the gaps in Austen’s work (and the subsequent deluge of remakes and adaptations) and filled them with meditations on racism, sexism, misogyny, xenophobia, colonialism, and queerphobia. As someone who lists Jane Austen as one of her all time favorite authors, who re-reads Pride and Prejudice at least once a year, and who has seen the 2005 film so many times she has the entire script memorized, I relished how Polk (and Cho) expanded on Austen’s work. No, not expanded: enhanced. She makes explicit what her predecessor left implicit or didn’t even consider in the first place.
Sexism and oppression based on gender affects every aspect of life in Chasland, yet Chaslanders seem largely oblivious to it. Or do they? Polk, like Austen, focuses her story on the upper echelon, which means we don’t hear what the poor and working class think about their society. We can infer and suppose, but that’s about it. Many readers of Austen consider this to be a fault, that she didn’t care about the lower classes and so chose to ignore them (I disagree, but that’s an argument for another day). Polk evokes Austen by also focusing The Midnight Bargain on the rich, but that’s kind of the point. The rich, particularly rich men, are the ones most deeply wedded to gendering magic and oppressing women because they have the most to gain from the imbalance.
Bargaining season is a rich people activity—I doubt the poor have the time, interest, or resources to replicate it, even on a smaller scale—not least of which because it allows men to bargain for their professional and financial future. They aren’t really bargaining for a wife but for the possibility of having magically inclined heirs and to gain a better position in society. While those lower down on the social ladder do not participate in the same schemes, their lives are determined by them. A wealthy man can marry his way into politics and power, making laws and rules that can smother like a mudslide or destroy like an avalanche.
It’s not just the big, obvious things like the collar or how Bargaining Seasons treats women like objects to be obtained. Even clothing comes with oppression literally built in. Beatrice must wear high heels everywhere, which limits her ability to run and walk great distances. Makeup is slathered on her face everyday, not because she likes it but because society has arbitrarily decided that’s the only way she can be beautiful enough to attract a suitor. At one point, Beatrice and Ysbeta find themselves unable to summon magic and discover that the stays in their bodices prevent them from taking the necessary deep breaths: “Even our fashion stands in the way of our potential,” bemoans Ysbeta.
Women behave as if they have a say in the process, but it’s a false choice. Beatrice’s situation is more dire than other girls’ but they’re all in a similar position whether they acknowledge it or not. For her, not marrying will mean financial ruin for her parents, social isolation for herself, and could even put a dent in her younger sister’s prospects. She doesn’t have the luxury to opt out of the social contract. Even her plot to stay unmarried and work for her father is choosing one oppression instead of the other. She can be denied magic or denied a family, but either way she’s still on a leash held by men.
It’s tempting to want to breeze through The Midnight Bargain. It has a clever conceit and a charming style that makes you want to sit down and read the whole thing in an afternoon. However, I recommend not doing that. Slow your roll and really savor the words, the characters, the story. This is a novel begging for a second or third read-through to pick up the nuances and whispered references you missed the first time around. If this is your first time reading something by C. L. Polk, know that she is a deliberate writer, a writer who plays with subtext and subtlety; what she doesn’t say is just as important as what she does. Let yourself sink into her story and you’ll come out of it with a richer experience and deeper understanding. I’ve only scratched the surface here. I’d need a thesis dissertation to discuss everything in the book.
Although she only has three novels out so far—Witchmark and Stormsong from the Kingston Cycle and now The Midnight Bargain—C.L. Polk has already become one of my favorite authors of historical fantasy fiction. The story is old and new at the same time, full of classic tropes done in invigoratingly original ways. There are a lot of must-reads this fall in speculative fiction, and The Midnight Bargain is near the top of that list.