Hope Against the Odds In C. L. Polk's Even Though I Knew the End

Books Reviews C.L. Polk
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Hope Against the Odds In C. L. Polk's <i>Even Though I Knew the End</i>

There’s a moment, midway through C. L. Polk’s new novella Even Though I Knew the End, that captures that sense of endless hope that readers have on behalf of their characters. Helen Brandt, an intrepid private investigator and warlock, is taking a moment of introspection and thinking about a favorite novel, The Great Gatsby.

I’d read this book a dozen times, two dozen. 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.

In a moment that gives away nothing about the story itself, Polk takes a beat to heighten the sense of hope that infuses the whole novella. There’s only one end to this story you’re reading, Polk seems to say to readers. But hope anyway. Hope, even though you know the end.

The beginning, however, is a bit of a mystery. Readers meet Helen Brandt in an alley, taking magical photos (despite an uncooperative moon) of a murder scene. Ritual markings fill the walls. Helen wants nothing to do with this case and the other murders related to it. She’d much rather spend time with her sweetheart, Edith because she knows her own time is running out. It turns out that it’s been ten years since she made a bargain with a devil, and her soul’s up for collection very, very soon. But when her client makes her an offer she can’t refuse, dangling her soul like bait on a hook, Helen starts digging into the murders and finds out that she’s in far deeper than she realized.

Helen’s voice evokes the private eye narratives of 1930s and 40s pulp (Helen’s client is named Marlowe, a nod to Raymond Chandler’s famous investigator of the same name). But where noir tales are traditionally heavily masculine, with dames and dolls and femme fatales, Polk places the majority of the story’s agency in the hands of its women. Helen navigates a society where women who love women must hide that affection in secret clubs and behind false wedding bands, where a wife must hand important medical paperwork over to their husband after the doctor gives her a pat on the head.

Despite the patriarchal structure, women do dance and love and live; they hold good jobs and work magic, both figurative and literal. There are hints at what the world could be, were they all free to grow and shine beyond their world’s limitations, if they could claim their power—even though they know the end.

But maybe, just maybe, they don’t know the end at all. Maybe there really is room to hope for more, and for a brighter future, no matter the plans of angels and demons.

Helen would love to keep the two people she loves most—her estranged younger brother, Ted, and her lover, Edith—out of harm’s way, especially when her case is so very dangerous. But Ted is a member of a magical brotherhood, the same one that expelled Helen when she made her demonic deal, and he’s working the very same case. Edith, despite her dislike of violence, has reasons she can’t stay away from the work, as well. Those connections are another departure from the traditional noir narrative, where the lonely PI ends the story alone and unchanged; here, Helen’s relationships set the stakes of the story, showing us what’s at risk if she fails. And Polk sets up those relationships to hook readers with both the fear that we know how things will turn out, and the hope that we don’t, and that maybe, maybe there’s a happy ending out there for the characters.

Despite the short length of the novella, Polk’s heart-wrenching, gorgeous story is the type to stick with readers long after they turn the last page. The prose itself is luminous, from heavenly descriptions of coffee to the way birds flit in and out of the narrative, their presence or absence carrying additional meaning. Helen’s outlook, her belief that the sacrifices she has made are absolutely worth it, beg the question of the value of a soul, both within the narrative and beyond. They also invite introspection about life: if you knew you only had ten years, how would you live? Would you spend each day with hope, even if you knew the end?

In an era of pandemic and uncertainty, that sense of infused hope hits home. Because even as readers think they know what’s coming next, there are surprises and twists in the narrative. Even looking out into a scary world, where certain endings seem all but inevitable, there is room for hope. More, there is a necessity to hope, to live like there are greater possibilities, like every day is worth what it took to bring you there.

And that is Polk’s gift to readers here, even more than their evocative prose and their mysterious tale of bargains and risks. Hope, the narrative seems to say. Despite everything, hope.

Because the journey to get to the ending is worth it.

Even Though I Knew the End is available now from Tordotcom.

Alana Joli Abbott is a reviewer and game writer, whose multiple choice novels, including Choice of the Pirate and Blackstone Academy for Magical Beginners, are published by Choice of Games. She is the author of three novels, several short stories, and many role-playing game supplements. She also edits fantasy anthologies for Outland Entertainment, including Bridge to Elsewhere and Never Too Old to Save the World. You can find her online at VirgilandBeatrice.com.