The Midnight Bargain by C. L. Polk
*I received a free review copy in exchange for an honest review of this book.
The Midnight Bargain is devastating and witty, full of carefully considered deals, social wrangling, friendship, sorcery, and romance. It's also acquainted with dread, with impending doom of a deeply personal kind, knowing that loved ones are shadows of all they could be.
I really like the dynamic between the MC and the non-POV major characters. She has different relationships with each of them, and in a book which is driver by conversation and socialization, that's really important. I love witty banter, tense interpersonal relationships, navigating social politics for material (and marital) stakes, it's done so well here. There's an absolutely devastating scene which revolves around flower arrangements... I'm in awe. This was a really fun book to read, I loved having strong characters with clashing motivations and often incompatible goals, all trying to get what they want, sometimes assisting and sometimes impeding each other. It's a kind of thrilling story which is gripping despite not having a ton of action (but not quite none).
This book does for discussions of sexism in a magical aristocratic setting what the The Kingston Cycle does for classism in the same. The sexism isn't anything really unusual, it just has a very specific and horrific shape that makes sense to have come out of this particular fictional world. The worldbuilding is great, and the characters (even the somewhat loathsome ones) have room to grow from where they were when the story began. I especially liked the dynamic between the MC and her younger sister, the way she thinks of her changes throughout the story in a way that (speaking as someone with both older and younger siblings) felt natural and made sense based on their relationship at the start of the story. Thinking back on it, that's definitely something that was done really well here, characters grow within the story and their relationships with each other change either as a driver of that growth or in reaction to it, depending on the character.
I like this one a lot. I feel content with it as a stand-alone novel, I think any potential sequel would need to follow different protagonists. The ending was really satisfying and I feel good about how everything wrapped up.
CW for pregnancy, death (not depicted), sexism, violence.