Book Reviews

Review: The Midnight Bargain by C L Polk

Anyone who’s been reading this blog for a while will know that one of my absolute favourite genres is fantasy of manners – Regency or Victorian inspired fantasy which takes all those balls and tearooms and adds magic – and I’m happy to say that The Midnight Bargain is a new favourite in the genre!

Book: The Midnight Bargain by C L Polk

Publication date: 15th April 2021

Ownership: Review copy sent free of charge by Orbit Books. All opinions my own.

Content warnings: misogyny and societal control/abuse of women including control of reproductive rights.

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?

While I understand marketing this to cash in on the success of the Bridgerton TV series, the similarities are extremely minimal. The Midnight Bargain is set in a Regency-inspired time period, but it’s not our world, and there are some significant differences in how society works; it also has a single perspective, and isn’t nearly so focused on sex and romance. It is, however, a very good Regency-inspired fantasy full of etiquette, romance, and magic – I had a wonderful time. This is a genre that for me always manages to feel cosy, even when it tackles some serious issues, and I loved the combination of magic, feminist thought, and fluffy romance.

Beatrice is an enjoyable heroine who will feel very familiar to anyone who has read much in the historical romance genre, fantasy-based or not. She’s a smart, determined young woman who feels trapped by society’s rules, except here they aren’t just the regular ‘women must get married and not pursue their interests’ kind, but also that women are forbidden from doing magic while they’re of childbearing age. On marriage, the women of Chasland are forced to wear collars that suppress their powers until there’s no chance they could have children, so for Beatrice, who wants to study magic more than anything, marriage is something to be dreaded. It’s an interesting, if slightly heavy-handed, way to amp up the marital pressures of the period, and puts Beatrice firmly in the “obstinate, headstrong girl” mould. I really enjoyed watching her learn to be herself through her friendship with the Lavans, who as foreigners, offer a rather different perspective.

There is a strong romance plot here, and the ending meets all the criteria for a romance novel, but I actually think that Beatrice’s personal development is far more the focus of the book. Yes, that includes falling in love with Ianthe, but it also includes standing up for herself, seeking out the secrets of magic, learning how to have friends, and creating a better world for the women who come after her. If you’re put off by the romance element, don’t be, because this is first and foremost a story of girl power. Beatrice and Ysbeta’s friendship, and their quest to learn magic, are so important to the plot. I actually wish it had been a romance between the two of them, though there are character reasons why that can’t be! But yes, if I were selling this book, I would focus on the feminist aspects and magic over the romance. It’s immensely fun and interesting even if you took the romance out!

The real star of the whole book, for me, is Nadi, the luck spirit Beatrice summons early in the book. Nadi is a creature of pleasure, and brings a really fun twist to the very rule-bound world both for the reader and for Beatrice herself. I’m spoiling nothing, but Nadi was pretty much my favourite thing, and even made me shed some tears! Though they don’t have much in common (one being a small furry creature and one being an incorporeal spirit), I think that if you liked Mephi in The Bone Shard Daughter, you’ll enjoy Nadi’s voice and Beatrice and Nadi’s alliance!

My one complaint about the book in general is an issue that I’ve had with Polk’s writing in the past: I think their world-building can be too opaque. There’s a tricky line to walk between info-dumping everything or not explaining enough, and unfortunately I feel this tends a bit to the latter side. This is set in an alt-Regency world, but outside of the fashion and etiquette, there are some significantly different elements that the narration kind of assumes we know about, which means that characters mention things offhand that the reader actually has no point of reference for. This can be done well, and means you have to use your brain to infer something about the world, but there are social and political issues here that are key to the plot that are simply never explained, like why Chasland (an England analogue) has such very different views on women’s magic to the other countries. There’s a bunch of history there, presumably, but in trying not to dump that on us, I think Polk actually left too much unclear. It’s not actually an enormous issue for the book as a whole – I decided at a certain point to stop trying to understand it, and had a great time once I had – it’s just a niggling little thing that pulls this down from being a five star read for me.

(Actually, I have one more very small complaint. I hate some of the names in this book. Ianthe, mentioned above, is the main male love interest, but has a name I’ve only ever seen used for girls, and I couldn’t work out if it was being done intentionally to shake things up genderwise, or just by mistake, as most of the other names seemed relatively traditional for the period. I also absolutely irrationally hate the name ‘Danton Maisonette’, which is just ridiculous.)

Fans of Stephanie Burgis’s Harwood Spellbook series or KJ Charles’s Charm of Magpies books will find much to love here, but it’s definitely worth checking out if you’re a fantasy lover who wants to step into historical romance, or a historical romance lover who wants to step into fantasy. Especially if you like your women rebellious, your society flawed, and your spirits adorable! Despite my criticisms, I had an absolutely brilliant time with this book, and highly recommend it. Four and a half out of five cats!

8 thoughts on “Review: The Midnight Bargain by C L Polk

      1. It’s not at all a bad place, but I would start with something a bit less confusing on the worldbuilding, something that’s closer to our world – this can get a little opaque in what’s different/the same so I think you would want some knowledge to fill in the blanks! Try Half a Soul by Olivia Atwater (girl cursed by fairies navigates a London Season; hot wizard love interest, a dark fairyland, social justice) or Snowspelled by Stephanie Burgis (Regency England if there was a matriarchy rather than a patriarchy; capricious fae, a snowbound house party, a fabulously smart heroine thrust into an awkward partnership with her hot ex-fiancee) if you’re into a decent romance plot, or if you’re not fussed on romance, Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho (magic is part of the government, and our hero just became the first non-white Sorcerer Royal). Mary Robinette Kowal’s Shades of Milk and Honey is a great series starter that sticks closest to an Austen-esque style, and I recently really enjoyed Mary Bennet and the Bingley Codex which is a Pride and Prejudice sequel but with Mary discovering magic! Any of those would be a great place to start, even if you’re not familiar with the period!


  1. Brilliant review! I love how detailed this was without being too spoilery and I can’t wait to read it for myself even more now, you’ve definitely sold me on it. I love a book which mixes an alternate historical time period with romance and fantasy, so I think is definitely right up my street.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s