Since I’ve fallen rather far behind on reviews given 2020, I’ll probably be writing some shorter reviews. Usually when I write posts covering more than one book, the titles have little in common other than being speculative fiction that I’ve read, but this time I’m covering two fantasy books about magical women pushing back against patriarchies: The Midnight Bargain by C. L. Polk and The Once and Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow.

As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

The Midnight Bargain
by C. L. Polk
384pp (Hardcover)
My Rating: 7/10
Amazon Rating: 4.3/5
LibraryThing Rating: 3.88/5
Goodreads Rating: 3.78/5

Book Description:

From the beloved World Fantasy Award-winning author of Witchmark comes The Midnight Bargain, a sweeping, romantic new fantasy set in a world reminiscent of Regency England, where women’s magic is taken from them when they marry. A sorceress must balance her desire to become the first great female magician against her duty to her family.

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?

The Midnight Bargain, a standalone fantasy of manners novel by World Fantasy Award–winning author C. L. Polk, kept me turning the pages, eager to find out how two young women’s attempts to make it through Bargaining Season with lots of magical knowledge and no fiancés went—especially after Beatrice falls for someone in spite of herself and is caught between her lifelong dream of practicing magic and her newfound wish to wed.

With her family’s financial difficulties, Beatrice is expected to find a match among the many eligible sorcerers who could prevent her household from falling into ruin. It shouldn’t be a problem for her to find a suitable match since her strong aura makes it obvious she’s an exceptionally powerful magician—or rather, she would be an exceptionally powerful magician if women were given the opportunity to study magic. Instead, women like Beatrice are valued for their ability to pass on magic to their children and must wear a collar that suppresses their own magic once married, as it protects any future children they carry from spirit possession.

Beatrice cannot bear the thought of being separated from her own power and has other plans: finding the secret spells women magicians have hidden and using them to prove she’s more useful to her family as a sorcerous business partner than a means of procuring financial security.

But two wealthy siblings, Ysbeta and Ianthe, complicate matters for Beatrice. Ysbeta also seeks the grimoires disguised as ordinary books with extraordinarily dull titles, and she purchases one that Beatrice discovered first and was intending to buy. Not knowing the true nature of the book, Ianthe suggests that his sister and Beatrice share the volume: a suggestion that his sister likely would have conveniently forgotten if not for the fact that she does not know how to read the grimoires she’s collected and learns that Beatrice can. As the two pursue their mutual goals of increasing their knowledge and remaining single, they become friends—and the more time Beatrice spends with Ianthe, the more she falls for him.

The Midnight Bargain is a delightful story that didn’t take long to draw me in, and I had fun reading it. The romance is closer to insta-love than the more drawn out type of slow burn that I tend to prefer, but it was a sweet love story that had me rooting for Beatrice and Ianthe to get their HEA from the start. However, my favorite relationship was the friendship that developed between Beatrice and Ysbeta because of their determination to find ways around the constraints placed upon them by their patriarchal society and become sorcerers themselves. Ysbeta was my favorite secondary character with her tenacity and spirit, and I enjoyed that this Regency-style novel not only had a romance but also a major character who did not want to marry at all, regardless of whether or not it had any effect on her own magic.

Though it kept me engaged enough to distract me from the world (in 2020, no less!), The Midnight Bargain did not have the amount of depth or beautiful prose that tends to make a novel and its characters memorable to me. It’s one of those books that I’m happy I read, but I doubt I’ll reread it even though I do appreciate C. L. Polk’s skill in writing such an entertaining, compelling story.

My Rating: 7/10

Where I got my reading copy: I purchased it.

Read an Excerpt from The Midnight Bargain

The Once and Future Witches
by Alix E. Harrow
528pp (Hardcover)
My Rating: 5/10
Amazon Rating: 4.5/5
LibraryThing Rating: 4.14/5
Goodreads Rating: 4.11/5

Book Description:

In the late 1800s, three sisters use witchcraft to change the course of history in Alix E. Harrow’s powerful novel of magic and the suffragette movement.

Named One of the Best Books of the Year by NPR Books • Barnes and Noble • BookPage

In 1893, there’s no such thing as witches. There used to be, in the wild, dark days before the burnings began, but now witching is nothing but tidy charms and nursery rhymes. If the modern woman wants any measure of power, she must find it at the ballot box.

But when the Eastwood sisters―James Juniper, Agnes Amaranth, and Beatrice Belladonna―join the suffragists of New Salem, they begin to pursue the forgotten words and ways that might turn the women’s movement into the witch’s movement. Stalked by shadows and sickness, hunted by forces who will not suffer a witch to vote―and perhaps not even to live―the sisters will need to delve into the oldest magics, draw new alliances, and heal the bond between them if they want to survive.

There’s no such thing as witches. But there will be.

An homage to the indomitable power and persistence of women, The Once and Future Witches reimagines stories of revolution, motherhood, and women’s suffrage—the lost ways are calling.

The Once and Future Witches was a book I had been especially excited about. It’s Alix E. Harrow’s second novel after her enchanting, beautifully written portal fantasy The Ten Thousand Doors of Januarymy 2019 Book of the Year—plus it’s about suffragette witches. Unfortunately, I struggled to make it through this one, even taking a break about halfway through to read another book. Although it did improve after that point, I probably still would have left it unfinished if I hadn’t loved the author’s previous novel as much as I did.

This standalone novel sounded like one I would love, and there certainly were a lot of elements that I appreciated. It’s a book brimming with feminist anger as women fight back against the patriarchy in an alternate 1890s United States, and it explores the Maiden, Mother, and Crone archetypes through the three sisters who make up the heart of the story. It has remade fairy tales and women passing down spells through oral and written words like songs and rhymes, and though this is a book with men’s magic and women’s magic, magic is not actually gender-based: those divisions were created by people.

It has so many pieces that make it seem like one of my types of books, but I found it rather boring. I don’t mind slower pacing at all if the writing, characters, or exploration of themes resonate with me, but that was not my experience with this book. The characters never came alive enough to get me invested in their stories, and the exploration of the sisters’ archetypes didn’t delve into them deeply enough to make up for them seeming more like constructs than complex characters. There were occasional glistening lines that exemplified the gorgeous prose Alix E. Harrow does so well, but they didn’t shine as brightly as in The Ten Thousand Doors of January, in which nearly every single sentence felt finely crafted.

Though The Once and Future Witches attempted to do some interesting things, it didn’t manage to keep me interested. In the end, I didn’t find it memorable, and it didn’t have enough good qualities to make it seem worth persevering through that many pages.

My Rating: 5/10

Where I got my reading copy: ARC from the publisher.

Read an Excerpt from The Once and Future Witches