Title: The Once and Future Witches
Author: C.L. Polk
Publisher: Redhook Books
Genres: Fantasy, Historical Fiction
Length: 528 pages
My Rating: ★★★★★
“Beatrice Clayborn is a sorceress who practices magic in secret, terrified of the day she will be locked into a marital collar that will cut off her powers to protect her unborn children. She dreams of becoming a full-fledged Magus and pursuing magic as her calling as men do, but her family has staked everything to equip her for Bargaining Season, when young men and women of means descend upon the city to negotiate the best marriages. The Clayborns are in severe debt, and only she can save them, by securing an advantageous match before their creditors come calling.
In a stroke of luck, Beatrice finds a grimoire that contains the key to becoming a Magus, but before she can purchase it, a rival sorceress swindles the book right out of her hands. Beatrice summons a spirit to help her get it back, but her new ally exacts a price: Beatrice’s first kiss . . . with her adversary’s brother, the handsome, compassionate, and fabulously wealthy Ianthe Lavan.
The more Beatrice is entangled with the Lavan siblings, the harder her decision becomes: If she casts the spell to become a Magus, she will devastate her family and lose the only man to ever see her for who she is; but if she marries—even for love—she will sacrifice her magic, her identity, and her dreams. But how can she choose just one, knowing she will forever regret the path not taken?”
As mentioned in my review of The Once and Future Witches, I am absolutely loving the way authors this season have tied together magic and women’s empowerment in new ways. The Midnight Bargain takes a more individualized, romantic approach to a similar theme. I absolutely adored it! It’s a rare occasion in which I can pinpoint the exact scene where a book becomes a five star read for me – but in The Midnight Bargain, I already knew from the ballroom scene that I was enamored. This doesn’t mean it’ll be a five-star read for everyone, though. I have read some valid criticisms of the pacing in this book. As a fast reader, I tend to charge through those sections anyway but if you’re a slow reader it may impact your opinion. This spellbinding read did an excellent job portraying that feminism in any world is not black and white – progress has gray areas, and though those gray areas are better than the alternative we can still fight for more. Ianthe was a delightful love interest, and their struggles as a couple felt so real despite being of magical origin. Beatrice and ysbeta were the perfect example of the idea that strong women don’t all have to want exactly the same thing. I highly recommend this book to anyone looking for magic and empowerment wrapped up in a world of social politics. Spoiler ahead, but I’m going to highlight the three ‘solutions’ people have to the issue with women and magic in the world of The Midnight Bargain
- Permanent Collars
For many women in this world, they are collared as soon as they’re wed. Typically, these women aren’t even fully grown when they marry: they’re still just teenage girls. Beatrice describes the collar as a light going out. The world becomes gray and drab, and it feels like her soul was sucked out of her body. With this alternative, women have to spend their lives from their teens to past childbearing age (so, somewhere between 30 and 40 years) in this state. Their husbands control their lives and they go through the world as a shell of themselves.
- Pregnancy Collars
In the world’s existing “radical” option, some societies only collar women when they’re likely to be pregnant. Though this is slightly better, the way magic develops in The Midnight Bargain means that a woman could still never become a fully achieved Magus. The collar cuts off their access to the magic, leaving them unable to ever fully bond a greater spirit.
At the end, Beatrice and Ianthe learn that all of these methods existed to erase the actual, existing safe method used in the past. In ancient societies where women were equal, a sorcerer father and sorceress mother would both send their greater spirits to defend the fetus while it grows. In this way, neither spirit would be able to possess it and turn the child into a dangerous creature. By hiding this method and erasing it from common knowledge, men were able to subjugate women and prevent them from ever reaching full equality. By bringing it back into the world, Beatrice gives the choice back to women. I really appreciated this ending, instead of Beatrice coming to terms with sometimes being collared. It did a wonderful job of representing an actual, real-life problem. Just because a society is slightly better to oppressed groups of people doesn’t mean they can’t still improve.
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