Rad Riot Reviews: The Midnight Bargain by C. L. Polk

Rating of Three Colin Firth Mr. Darcys

Lady Blether’s Society Papers

Dearest reader, the bargaining season is upon us, and we shall soon discover which young maidens succeed at securing a match, and which succeed at reclaiming their agency. One journey shall be a trial, one a tribulation, but both demand a choice; a choice young maidens of Chasland must make to save their families from financial ruin, or worse yet, scandal.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that when one is in society, one might be a failure, but must never appear to be so. Trying to abide by this rule is Beatrice Clayborn, who was last spotted hurrying from a ball with her maquillage running, much like the rest of her hopes for freedom. A dear popinjay informed me that Ms. Clayborn was being groomed for the bargaining season for marriage; a marriage that will mask queries into her father’s dwindling investments and, hopefully, save it from discovery. But, it appears our lead damsel has much to be distressed about. Mere days before her rushed leave from one of the premier balls of the town, Ms. Clayborn was seen rushing from an appointment with her modiste to look for a book; a grimoire known to contain conjuring spells to summon powerful Greater Spirits.

It is truly an abomination of nature that just as when you think you might allow your mind to wander with the thoughts of liberation, you are distracted by the irresistible allure of a dashing gentleman with a smile that makes you feel grateful to have worn layers of petticoats for you wouldn’t want to be caught with the sight of your knees quivering. However, to be seen promenading with members of the beau monde that are highly sought after would undoubtedly benefit the Clayborns. However, in Ysbeta Lavan, Ianthe’s sister, Ms Clayborn appears to have found herself an accomplice in her attempts at emancipation.

Women with an ambition, demanding that others of their sex be allowed to have autonomy over their own bodies, and liberate themselves from patriarchal constructs! Whispers of such an enterprise are fodder for societal scandal, but a collective movement for change might just encourage me to come out and reveal myself.

My name is Lady Blether, you do not know me, but I know you. You may have acquainted yourself with the works of my acquaintance, Whistledown. Change is inevitable; and as such should be the source of your fortnightly prattle.

Alright, Bridgerton fans, now that I have your attention, let’s talk about The Midnight Bargain by C. L. Polk (P.S. I was definitely living my Jane Austen/Bridgerton/Gossip Girl fantasy writing the column above).

Set in a magical, alternative Jane Austen-statious Regency world rich with diverse characters, Midnight Bargain follows Beatrice Clayborn, a budding sorceress aka a blooming feminist moxie. All Beatrice wants is to live her best Jo March life and practice magic, and maybe have a lover on the side. But, since we’re in a world of nonsense sans sensibility (so, like ours but with magic), Béatrice has no agency over her life. Her and her family’s societal and financial status depend on her marital prospects. Beatrice is mostly just ‘terrified of the day she will marry and be locked into a warding collar that will cut off her magic to protect her unborn children from spirit possession.

Just as Beatrice finds a grimoire that could potentially liberate her, a budding sorceress Ysbeta snatches it away from her. But, even after summoning a spirit to help Beatrice get the book back, she gets distracted (rightfully) by Ysbeta’s brother, the devilishly handsome, heavenly compassionate and unworldly wealthy Ianthe Lavan.

Having set the novel in the Regency era, Polk questions how marriage has used to increase women’s status in a world where patriarchy rules, but also shows how falling in love with the wrong man can have severe consequences. In The Midnight Bargain, women are required to wear warding collars that restrict them from performing magic and birthing magical children. The women in the book have conditional and controlled access to wealth, education and society; conditioned and controlled by men. While the men in the book aspire to create an equitable society, it’s done so by oppressing women. Beatrice’s father hates the idea of his daughter performing magic in secret so much that he sets her up with a man who almost killed her.

And that was frustrating. The men in the book might mean well, but refuse to use their power to empower the women in the book. Beatrice has to endure torture from her family, the warding collar and almost escape death, only for Ianthe to come and rescue her. The book really wants to give its characters a happy ending. But, revolution is inevitably going to have its casualties and therefore, cannot be treated so casually.

However, The Midnight Bargain is an enjoyable romp that will surely inspire some. I, myself, felt so deeply connected to the characters, that I was frustrated on their behalf. Invoking an emotional and personal feeling in a reader speaks volumes about C.L. Polk and her writing. The writing is exceptional. The world is clearly immersive. I was undoubtedly frustrated, but enjoyed every minute of it. I will definitely be reading more from her.

Something to keep in mind, The Midnight Bargain was recently selected for Canada Reads 2021 and was defended by the iconic Canadian Olympic athlete Rosey Edeh. In the debate, the book was critiqued to have “spoon-fed feminist ambitions repeatedly throughout the book”. In her defense, Edeh responded, sometimes it might seem like it’s being said over and over again, but it’s because it’s a battle of the mind and a journey of the mind, which Beatrice takes. Even the spirits are part of her mind.

And so it’s through repetition — and only through that repetition in which you can fortify yourself, fortify your mind, body and your soul, in order to fight those battles; which is patriarchy; which is those societal pressures in which she does not want to live in; which is the ability to stand in your truth. I think of Jean Augustine, the MP representative who, for a long time, pushed to get Black History Month recognized throughout Canada. Do you know how many times she must’ve had to hear the word “no”?

Rad Riot Reads is column written by members of the Rad Riot Books community that reviews literary works from the Global South, translated, queer, migrant and anti-oppressive literature.

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