Don’t you just love when you read a book and it makes your heart feel so incredibly full? That was my experience with The Midnight Bargain. While C.L. Polk’s earlier Kingston Cycle was captivating, The Midnight Bargain was an absolutely sublime balance of magic, romance, social justice, and more. I say this as someone who is not particularly keen on romantic plots! I loved nearly everything about this book, from its characters to its storylines and setting. Dare I even try to distill this into a sensible review?
Beatrice Clayborn is a sorceress. That by itself is not remarkable in her world. But it is time for her to wed, and in this world once again drawn from echoes of Regency England, that means debuting during the mercenary-sounding “bargaining season.” If Beatrice doesn’t make a good match, her family will be destitute and her younger sister will never be able to debut. Yet marriage means a collar to suppress her magic in order to protect the unborn children she must produce for her husband (blech)—and Beatrice dreams of a life as a mage, a life with a greater spirit as a companion, a life denied to women. To complicate matters, one of her potential suitors is actually not all that bad, and as she tries to find out of her quandary, she also seems to be falling in love with him—oops.
From the start, Polk catapults us into the middle of Beatrice’s conundrum. Hers is a country where higher-born women are basically property to be bargained away by fathers to husbands. But there is a complexity to this world, as seen in the presence of foreigners like love interest Ianthe and his sister and Beatrice’s reluctant ally, Ysbeta, who come from a slightly more liberal society—which nonetheless has many restrictions on the freedoms of women. These gradations and nuance mean that Polk can wrestle with that eternal question of individual versus collective good. Beatrice could just run away, but it would mean deserting her family and leaving them bankrupt. Her true conflict isn’t the incompatibility of her magical desires with marriage (though that doesn’t help)—it is her conscience, her desire to be free yet also protect and uplift her family. We see echoes of this throughout the book in terms of Ianthe and Ysbeta’s marriage prospects as well.
Once again, Polk is brilliant at writing clueless characters of privilege. As Beatrice gets to know Ianthe, she lets slip her cleverness and her radical attitude towards the independence of women. At first Ianthe is taken aback, demonstrating how, despite being a “good man,” he has nevertheless internalized a “but this is just the way it is” attitude. When society is built for you, Beatrice points out, you never question its structure. You never think to look for a better way. Much of the frustration and tension in this novel originates from Ianthe’s sympathy for Beatrice manifesting sometimes as an overbearing desire to protect her from herself. Some might see this as patronizing, but I like to see it as the seeds of growth for him as a character and their romance, and without spoiling the ending, I like how Polk directs that.
I won’t say too much on the gender politics, simply because they are fairly obvious and others have already remarked on them. But what mainly spoke to me was how Polk used the collaring of fertile women as a symbol for how our society is not built for women and other marginalized people. That is to say, if you have a lot of privilege in our world (especially if you are a white, cis, straight, able-bodied man), then it is very easy to look around and think, “Huh, things are going pretty well,” and dismiss people’s complaints about a system as individual inconveniences. That’s because the system—whether it’s education, transit, a particular workplace—was designed for you by people who share your privilege. This manifests in The Midnight Bargain again through the collar, which is seen as a necessary evil by pretty much everyone, including more progressive people like those from Llanandras. Yet it is only this way because no one in a position of power thought to research further because it doesn’t inconvenience them (men) all that much.
Something that surprised me with the gender politics, however, was the notable dearth of queer characters. There are a few allusions to same-sex attraction, but I was surprised, given how thoroughly Polk worked it into their previous books, that we didn’t get more of that here. Understandably, it would be lower-key in a backwards place like Chasland, and likewise, I understand that it is much simpler to construct the allegory Polk wants through a simplistic gender binary—yet I don’t really consider those acceptable reasons to omit this representation from one’s world. So this is probably my one big critique of this book, for as I read it I simultaneously loved every moment of it yet also wondered, “Where would I be in this world?”
Beyond that, The Midnight Bargain is simply another brilliant novel from Polk. I don’t really know how else to say it. This was my third book of the year, and pretty much every novel I read from now until December will have to work hard to dislodge this one from being the best book I’ve read in 2022. It is poignant, fun, tense, and magical. If you like Regency romances and fashion mixed with a dash of sensible questioning of society, you need to pick this up.