Heaven Can Wait: A Review of Even Though I Knew the End
Even Though I Knew the End. C.L. Polk. Tordotcom, November 2022.
C.L. Polk’s fiction is deeply concerned with the societal, psychological, and personal costs of magic, and the ways in which magic and social inequalities interact. In her 3-novel Kingston Cycle (2018-2021), readers saw the disorder and reconstruction of a society based on the persecution and punishment of magic-users, one in which proficient magicians are used and used up by an uncaring state. In her enthralling 2020 novel The Midnight Bargain, Polk gave us a stratified Regency analogue where women of magical power are literally locked and collared into submission to protect their unborn children. And to all her work – both novels and short fiction – she brings an understanding of the emotional bonds that love forms, bonds that provide protection and intimacy, but also increased vulnerability, especially in societies where queer love is frowned upon. All these narrative impulses come together in Polk’s new fantasy noir novella Even Though I Knew the End.
Combining multiple genres is always a trick, a balancing act. The meld can be a beautiful thing when an author is conscious of and familiar with the tropes, images, character types, and atmospheres that give a genre or subgenre its particular cast. Likewise, it can be a disastrous failure when an author fails to integrate genres with intent and respect for their histories. With Even Though, Polk demonstrates a fine flair for the world-weary noir attitude, reflected in the novella’s title, which hints strongly at the protagonist’s noirish determination to do right even in the face of deadly risk. She imbues that feeling into a charged story of magical investigation that would not have seemed entirely out of place in an episode of Supernatural. (Which, I hasten to add, is no criticism.)
Polk makes ample use of noir tropes. There is a detective: Helen Brandt is a queer woman living in 1941 Chicago, taking on petty investigative work that puts her particular set of skills to good use. An augur, she visits crime scenes to cast rituals and uncover mysteries. Cast out from the mystical order The Brotherhood of the Compass, she lives now on the verges of the law and the ordered society in which she once believed. She has estranged relatives and a traumatic past—one fateful decision in her youth has followed her down the alleyways of the dark life she now leads. She is pursued by two members of her former order, in a strong echo of the traditional rivalry between PIs and cops we see in so many detective films. And she has the patter down, with wordplay like “I’m not at my most charming when someone points a gun at me” and “God, what a dish”. Helen also possesses the requisite noble heart hidden behind a cover of steel: that fateful decision, one that cost her her literal soul, was made in order to save her brother from death. That gives her story an additional moral dimension that fills out and adds emotional complexity to the traditional noir protagonist. Most of all, Helen transcends the traditional flippant pessimism of the noir detective in her belief, despite everything, in a better world. As she muses while perusing a copy of The Great Gatsby:
Jay Gatsby knew a lot about hope. It felt a little painful, on account of it not being a sure thing. In fact, there was almost no hope for him, which made that tiny flashing light all the more precious. I’d read this book a dozen times, two dozen. I always came back. I always held my breath, waiting for Daisy to come to him. Jay hoped every single time and I hoped right along with him, even though I knew the end.
There is a shady client. Marlowe (get it?) is a rich high society femme fatale, seductive yet mysterious in her origins and motives, and the primary engine in moving Helen ever deeper into both figurative and literal underworlds. There is a murderer: the so-called “White City Vampire,” who drains the blood from their victims and leaves them covered in mysterious ritual markings. There is the betrayal (on a literally cosmic level) of supposed friends, and the reconciliation and respect of former enemies.
And of course, there is a lady in the case. Edith Jarosky loves both Helen and God, and her romance with the former makes for much of Polk’s most heartfelt prose: when Helen spots Edith for the first time in the novel at The Wink (a lesbian nightclub), she notes that “I stayed where I was. I wanted this moment to see her, to fill my memories with her, to feel how it ached so sweet and bitter in my chest to see her one more time before I had to button all that up and put on a smile.” The passionate romance between Helen and Edith is the heart of the story, and per genre custom Edith becomes a point of vulnerability for Helen, a target for retaliation and harm. However, it is more than noteworthy that Polk has not written a standard queer romantic tragedy here.
Souls are key to the novella: things to be traded, sold, given away, fought for by angels and demons. Helen’s soul and even the pure and compassionate soul of Edith are items up for grabs as much as any Maltese falcon or other MacGuffin, yet at absolutely no time in the entire novella is their queerness considered a stain on their souls. Not even God’s angels on Earth, seeking a return to and reunion with God, imply at any time that either woman is unfit for Heaven because of their queer love. That is no small thing, not at all. It is one of the novella’s great pleasures that queerness is not cast as something limiting or unclean, nor a signifier of any true difference between people on the spiritual plane. Neither Helen nor Edith, nor even their friend Harriet—whom Helen encounters in an asylum having suffered electroshock therapy to “cure” her of her particular sexual orientation—nor any of their friends at the lesbian bar The Wink, are tainted for who they are and who they choose to love. It suggests that there is a fairness and justice in Heaven unattainable on Earth, providing another vein of hope and optimism for this noirish narrative. Though Helen claims to know the end, and her ultimate fate may indeed be dark, Polk shows love may, in fact, ultimately be able to transcend earthly and demonic planes alike.
Jeremy Brett (he, him, his) is an Associate Librarian at Cushing Memorial Library & Archives, Texas A&M university, where he serves as Curator of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Research Collection, one of the largest of its kind in the world.
This article was pitched from ARB’s monthly calls for reviews. The reviewer is a regular ARB contributor. It was edited by Zachary Gillan and copyedited by Misha Grifka Wander. ARB arranged a review copy from the publisher.