‘Even Though I Knew the End’ by C.L. Polk: A sapphic fantasy noir with a little something for everyone

This Even Though I Knew the End book review jumps into the dark and wonderful world of Helen Brandt, a magical private investigator who sold her soul to a demon in exchange for her brother’s life.

I’ll admit that when I first heard of this novella, I jumped at “sapphic fantasy noir.” I haven’t ready many books with that descriptor, and given the synopsis, I knew there was a chance this story would land with me in a big way. Though a quick read, there was plenty of room for these characters to burrow their way into my brain and exceed all of my expectations.

First and foremost, we must talk about the setting. Taking place in 1940s Chicago, the environment becomes a character all its own. There is no shortage of books, movies, and television shows set during this period of time, especially in this part of the country, but Even Though I Knew the End managed to keep it fresh.

When I first opened the book, Helen’s voice swept me up into a world of dark, shadowy alleyways, full of magic and monsters. If you’ve ever seen a black-and-white noir film, you’ll understand what this book sounds like, the types of imagery it produces in your mind’s eye, the feelings it elicits.

But C.L. Polk subverts the typical tropes by writing a main character who’s not only a woman, but a sapphic woman at that. In everything else, Helen stands by the conventions of the genre—she’s a down-and-out detective who doesn’t get along with law enforcement, she’s as brusque as she is charismatic, and while she might have a rough exterior, she also has a heart of gold.

It’s not hard to like Helen, and it’s not hard to recognize her as a flawed human stricken with various vices and impulsive tendencies. She is balanced by her partner, Edith, who is a kind soul with soft edges and a gentle voice. I picture her as though she is cloaked in an ethereal haze—otherworldly and ephemeral.

even though i knew the end book review

Though I wouldn’t necessarily say there should be triggers warnings on this Even Though I Knew the End book review or the novel itself, I want to note that Polk keeps the story historically accurate. Helen and Edith meet in a queer speakeasy; they do not show affection in public and keep their relationship private for fear of harassment and retribution; religion and the Catholic Church plays a large role throughout the story, in part due to guilt and fear of going to Hell for leading a queer life.

I appreciate stories that erase homophobia and treat the queer experience as something commonplace and widely accepted. However, there is still room for books like Even Though I Knew the End, which remind us of a lifetime before ours, where living a queer life was not easy or even safe. The mention of these struggles puts into perspective how far we’ve come—and how far we still have to go.

What surprised me most about this book was the length and tightness of the story despite several important threads woven throughout. Not only must we contend with the dangers of Helen and Edith’s love story, but the history of Helen’s choice to sell her soul to a demon in order to save her brother, as well as her current job in which she must track down Chicago’s most notorious serial killer, the White City Vampire.

If you love reading about magic systems and the orders that belong to them, you’ll find an interesting, albeit brief, inclusion in this book. Helen is an augur (a magic-user), though she has been exiled and therefore is discouraged from using her abilities. Since Helen is a bit of a rebel, you can imagine why she is at odds with the Brotherhood of the Compass.

Hired by her usual benefactor, Helen accepts one last job before she is meant to serve eternity in Hell. It’s supposed to quick—get in, take some photos, and get out. But after seeing the scene of the crime, Helen can’t help but dig deeper (dogged determination being another hallmark of this genre and something Helen has in spades). There is something bigger going on here, and it’ll lead her right to the White City Vampire, whether she wants it to or not.

The true crux of this story is seeing Helen’s humanity set against the world of angels and demons. She is painfully mortal, and yet she must fight alongside and against divine beings. Seeing her navigate this world is just as interesting as the central mystery. Couple that with Polk’s stunning writing, and this story becomes a recipe for success. There are lines in this book that made me stop in my tracks, just so I could live with them a little longer before moving onto the next.

I have one final note for this Even Though I Knew the End book review, and that is a warning of sorts. This novella will warm your heart as quickly and easily as it will break it. Trust me when I say it takes a truly fantastic writer to turn tragedy into triumph, and I couldn’t help but cling to hope every step of the way—even though I knew the end.

‘Even Though I Knew the End’ published on November 8, 2022

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