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?
I went into this book expecting a lovely romance because Polk is especially good at romances–and this was delivered! But I didn’t expect to get completely fired up by the feminist aspects of the book, and that’s exactly what happened here. Come for the romance, stay for the feminism.
First I want to touch on the world-building. There are clearly things that are mirrored on our own world even though the world is wholly fantastical. This helps the reader to fill in certain blanks and I have to say I really appreciate this type of world building the most because I tend to get lost if there are too many new details I need to remember. There is a sort of marriage mart season that will feel familiar to readers of historical romances or Austen, along with societal expectations, propriety, assemblies, dances, carriages, etc. The magical aspect of the world is firmly entrenched into every aspect of the world-building and also the themes of the book. As far as the world it’s not as important what the magic can do as who can do it and when and why. Because there is some danger with women who are able to practice magic exposing their unborn to spiritual possession during pregnancy, women’s ability to practice magic has been severely restricted. This is accomplished by women being (forced) to wear a magical collar that cuts off their abilities. This is just the way things are and everyone accepts it (except of course not everyone is on board with this). While women do have more or less power within the different societies, they have little choice in their marriages and these marriages are negotiated to either secure powerful alliances in business/society or for…uh…breeding purposes because of their magical potential. Yeah…….no thanks.
With all of that in mind, enter our main character, Beatrice Clayborn. She wants nothing more to become a Mage but of course this will always be denied to her. This doesn’t stop her from trying. And soon she meets another young woman who also wishes to become a Mage and is willing to do almost anything to escape marriage altogether. I really loved Beatrice! She’s a character that sticks to her guns no matter what. At one point she is torn because she realizes she’s falling in love, but she’s determined not to ‘settle’ for something because she knows, even if that life is the best she might expect from society in its current state, that it’s not right. She could easily have just taken that easy way out but she refused to accept it. And it wasn’t just for her own sake but because she wanted to make a stand for other women as well. At the end of the day she has to make the toughest decision of her life and my heart completely broke for her in that moment.
I also really enjoyed the Lavan siblings. I’ll admit it took me a little longer to warm up to Ysbeta because she’s so cold to Beatrice at first. Later you come to realize how dire of a situation she’s been in and why she’s so determined not to let anyone, even Beatrice, stand in her way of finding a solution. Ianthe, of course, is lovely. He’s not perfect, of course, because even though he loves his sister and ‘does his best’ to help her, he doesn’t really get it. He can’t fully comprehend what it’s like for these women. He’s an ally. But he’s not an ally. At one point I was like ‘dear Ianthe, sweet Ianthe, I love you but shut your fool mouth because you have no idea of what you speak’. I was happy when he finally realized that, right, he didn’t get it but he was going to do his best to understand going forward and support those leading the way for change. If only everyone in the world would be like Ianthe we would have a much better world!
This book is full of the kind of bullshit sexism and injustices that make me so angry that had this not been an ebook I would have thrown it across the room in a fit of rage. There were things in this book that made my blood boil. And there were incredible moments of heartbreak that broke me down into tears. There is one scene in particular where you really feel the horror and despair of Beatrice and Ysbeta at the very thought of being collared that really affected me. I can’t get that scene out of my mind because of how it made me feel. But this is a book about change, about standing up for what you believe in and actually doing things to force a change. If people don’t want to change, too bad, some others will and those people will stand up too and eventually things will change. This is the beginning of people being tired of hiding in the shadows and demanding change.
Now, if this book had one negative for me, it’s the relationships that both Beatrice and Ysbeta have with one of their parents. Beatrice’s father and Ysbeta’s mother are incredibly controlling and fully prepared (and actively trying to) force their daughters into marriages that they don’t want just for their own means. For me, this is unforgivable. Of course, I am of an unforgiving nature so maybe this is a personal issue of my own. But I will say that I felt let down when both parents suddenly had a change of heart at the end and were seemingly forgiven for their previous behaviors. In my mind they had stepped across a line that would make me cut someone off for good. But, again, that’s just me.
Overall, I really loved this book. The romance was sweet and heartbreaking and lovely and the themes of the story are clear and filled with all the rage that such topics deserve. 5/5 stars.