I was pretty excited about The Midnight Bargain from the second I read the synopsis. The novel is a magical feminist satire with commentary on the inequality of women and men's role in that. In The Midnight Bargain, women with magic are forced to wear collars that dull their world, prevent them from using magic, and protect their babies from spirit possession in the womb. Main character Beatrice is forced into the dilemma of what she loves more: her magic or her suitor.
"For women, magic was the solitary pursuit of widows and crones, not for the woman whose most noble usefulness was still intact. The inner doors of the chapterhouse were barred to her, while a man with the right connections could elevate himself through admittance and education among his fellow magicians. Anyone with the talent could see the aura of sorcery shining from Beatrice's head, all the better to produce more magicians for the next generation."
Beatrice is a highly intelligent and talented sorceress. If she were a man, she would have already risen up in the ranks of magic. But as a woman, she's only prized for her magical power in regards to producing equally talented children. Oof. With her family destitute and a younger sister, who will also need to come out into society after her it's imperative that Beatrice makes a good match in marriage. Despite loving her family, Beatrice can't help but struggle against the chains of society, secretly practicing magic and summoning spirits before the inevitable day she will have to wear the collar of marriage.
"Spiritborn children were the reason for warding collars. Unprotected, a sorceress with child was too great a temptation for a spirit, whose eternity as a disembodied, yet thinking being was dull and lifeless compared to the tether of a mortal body in the material world. And the child's body growing in the womb, with all its fingers, its toes, but no soul yet in residence was the perfect home for such a spirit. They would slip inside that growing body, ready to be born and have the whole world in their hands."
The only thing that could prevent this collaring is her ability to summon a higher spirit. So Beatrice desperately seeks out this knowledge in coded grimoires (books that appear normal to men, but teach women magic), and stumbles across a kindred spirit in a new and very wealthy friend Ysbeta. The two race against the clock to learn how to summon the greater spirit that will save them from arranged marriages, all while attending Jane Austen-like parties with ballroom dancing and calling cards. What an interesting world!
"But she didn't want a duke or a Minister's son. She didn't want to marry a man from another land. She wanted to be a magician, and marriage stood squarely in its way."
I loved the relationship between Ysbeta and Beatrice. It is the true standout relationship of The Midnight Bargain. They challenge and support one another, all while confronting societal norms and practicing magic. The two are so much more than friends, they are rivals, co-conspirators, and confidants. If they are found out, they could lose everything they hold dear. Their friendship and support of one another is truly what feminism is about.
I was less thrilled with Beatrice's blossoming romance with Ysbeta's brother, Ianthe, who was too perfect, and understanding, which made him rather drab. Plus, as a die-hard fan of the slow burn, I was vastly disappointed that Beatrice and Ianthe kissed upon their very first meeting. It would've been so much better if Beatrice had to wonder if Ianthe returned her feelings instead of knowing with certainty that he did. I guess the author figured that the drama or Ianthe being the most eligible bachelor in society was enough, but I never felt any tension about whether the two would end up together, as Ianthe was pretty liberal and clearly the only match for Beatrice--as literally no other man would be at all sympathetic to her views.
Instead of a whole-will-they-won't-they it felt like just a matter of time. After all, the two had already kissed, despite having virtually no conversations. I don't buy for a second that intellectual, spirited Beatrice fell for a man with whom she barely spoke. The entire romance was definitely at odds with the feminist story the author was trying to tell. I was disappointed that The Midnight Bargain dealt with the more typical drama of jealousy, parental disapproval, and what the marriage collar would mean for their relationship, rather than Beatrice shirking the marriage duty all together.
"Imagine that you were considered too weak-minded and incapable of learning the higher magics, but even that didn't matter, because your worth as a sorceress lies in your womb."
It's really a shame, because all of the potential for a powerful relationship was there, but it wasn't executed well. It was boring and frustrating, since the entire relationship seemed antithetical to what Beatrice actually wanted in life. There was no pivotal moment of Ianthe overcoming societal prejudice and finally accepting Beatrice as a sorceress and helping her or any other kind of tension. He just wanted to help her all along.
In fact, I much preferred Beatrice's relationship with Ysbeta. And I lamented Beatrice's marriage to Ianthe, because I felt that Beatrice and Ysbeta should have instead traveled the world together, unlocking the mysteries of magic together or helping other society ladies escape the fate of the marriage collar. What a missed opportunity! I was so disappointed that Ysbeta went off on her own to discover lost magics and to record them, while Beatrice just got married and became pregnant after Ysbeta discovered a way to prevent spirit possession in the womb without a collar. I couldn't believe that independent, ambitious Beatrice just settled down, got married, and popped out babies while letting her friend do all of the cool magical stuff. It felt like defeat.
Though The Midnight Bargain presented such interesting moral quandaries, Beatrice never really had to choose between Ianthe and her magic or her magic and saving her family or her magic and having children--three very important dilemmas--she just gets everything she ever wanted with very little issue. It's one thing if a character struggles over the course of a novel or a series and experiences major setbacks, especially with such high stakes, and then obtains their happy ending--then it is earned. To have it all handed to the main character just feels unrewarding, especially when it seems in complete opposition to the themes of the novel. And in this case, it feels cheap, because of the high potential for fallout from both Beatrice's family, society, and from playing with powerful magics.
"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?"
Plus, Beatrice's happy ending just didn't feel all that happy to me. After the novel presented men as being such a huge problem, for Beatrice to just end up married with a child and another one on the way felt tone deaf. How is this the happily ever after of a girl who wanted magic and power more than anything? She should have walked away from this relationship with Ianthe. I would have rather had the novel ended with Ysbeta and Beatrice adventuring together, either romantically or platonically, and Ianthe could have visited them or pushed for more rights for women on the side. This would have felt less like a capitulation and betrayal of the ideals of the novel and for what it's women were fighting.
"I have never met a woman who had the luxury of ignoring her husband."
All in all, The Midnight Bargain had some really interesting ideas, but it made poor narrative choices that detracted from the strong feminist ideals of the novel. While an entertaining read filled with magic and an interesting world, I couldn't help but feel that The Midnight Bargain lost sight of what it set out to do, and ultimately fell short of its goals entirely.
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