Magic Systems and Societal Expectations in The Midnight Bargain


The Midnight Bargain

By C.L. Polk

Rating: 5/5

Genre: Speculative/Historical Fantasy

QUILTBAG Main Character: No

QUILTBAG Minor Character: Yes

Main Character of Color: No 

Bechdel Test: Yes

Summary: Beatrice has one job: to be engaged to be married by the end of the season. But while the other young women of her age are eager to find the best match for themselves and their families, Beatrice is convinced that she does need not marry to be useful to her family. Determined to make a deal with a greater spirit and be allowed to continue to practice magic to help her father, Beatrice runs head first into another young woman looking to leave the bargaining season unbetrothed. As one friendship grows, Beatrice also discovers that she may have true romantic feelings for her new friend’s brother. Choices need to be made, and Beatrice sees only two before her: gain the power to be her own person and lose the man she is quickly falling for, or marry, lose her magic, and possibly grow to hate him. But maybe those are not her only choices. 

Let’s Get A Little Deep:

What makes a magic system work? I think if you ask this question to different writers you are bound to get different answers. There are a myriad magic systems in fantasy worlds, some stronger than others. For me, a magic system works when it knows its limits. What can’t magic do is often more important a question than what it can do. But what if that question pushed a little farther? What if the question wasn’t ‘what can’t magic do’ but rather what will those with more access to magic than others do to keep it that way?

The Midnight Bargain posits a unique world where most power comes through the ability to bargain with major and minor spirits in order to blend their power with yourself. For those able to have children, however, there is a possible cost. A pregnant sorceress risks her child being possessed at birth. The result society has come up with is another kind of bargain. In exchange for a husband, social and financial security, and honor to their families, young women spend the season looking for a man to marry. When the deal is struck and the marriage made, the woman puts on a damping colar, cutting her off from her magic. This practice is seen as such a given that women are not allowed to be trained in their magic. Men marry sorceresses not for their power but for the possibility of sons who will be sorcerers. 

The people who inhabit the world of The Midnight Bargain take it for granted that this is how it has to be. A woman must choose either magic or a family. Even this is not a real choice because society has little room for unmarried women and regardless will not allow women to study strong magic in the academies. Beatrice knows she has no real options, that her choices are all but made for her. Knowing this doesn’t stop her from trying to change it. 

It is this very drive not to conform to what the world expects that spurs this story forward. Beatrice loves her magic, loves the minor spirit that she bargains with for luck. She loves helping her father with his business, loves the idea that she could be worth more than her ability to make babies. It is not that Beatrice loathes the idea of being a wife and mother (though this is true for a minor character) but that Beatrice does not want to give up such an important part of herself for the sake of what society would force her into. 

Throughout the story, Beatrice questions and pushes back against what everyone expects of her. This struggle, despite happening in a fictional world, feels as solid and real as if it were happening right in front of us. This is because that push and pull of what women want to be versus what society wants them to be is very real. Women are often forced, to this day, to choose between the family they want and the job/art/hobby that they love.

Because of the nature of the magic system in The Midnight Bargain, it may seem impossible for Beatrice to have everything she wants. But just like society can change and grow as people stand up and fight for their freedom, so too can magic find ways to fill all the space given to it. I won’t ruin the ending, but the ways in which this story seamlessly combines the confines of its magic system with the confines of the world’s social elite is breathtaking to say the least. 

The Midnight Bargain cements my already high opinion of C.L. Polk as one of my favorite authors. Her books are firmly on my “must buy” list as soon as they come out. You should absolutely go out and buy a copy of The Midnight Bargain as well as checking out her other QUILTBAG+ series The Kingston Cycle. Her worlds are full of complex magic systems that know their limits and are all the better for them. 

Thanks for going a little deep with me! I post reviews every other Thursday. Did you love The Midnight Bargain? Leave a comment telling me your favorite magic system. You can also find me on Twitter @gwasserst! Special thanks to Yasi (@yasaminnb) for editing my posts.

One thought on “Magic Systems and Societal Expectations in The Midnight Bargain

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