I’d heard enough good about Even Though I Knew the End by C.L. Polk that I had it penciled in to read even before the Hugo finalists were released, though my uneasy relationship with noir had me somewhat apprehensive. But with its spare word count and excellent narrative voice, it promised to be well worth an easy couple days of reading.
Even Though I Knew the End stars Helen, a 1940s Chicago mystic forced to freelance after the exchange of her soul for her brother’s life sees her cast out of reputable magical organizations. So when the opportunity arises to regain her soul in exchange for tracking down the mysterious White City Vampire, she has little choice but to take the case.
Even Though I Knew the End is undoubtedly a period piece, and you can almost hear the mid-Atlantic accent every time the lead uses “doll” as a term of direct address. But Polk captures the period well, and the prose style makes it easy to immerse in the story. The characters are well-drawn, and while I’m not sure I’d call the lead likable, it’s at least easy enough to be drawn into the task of stopping a serial killer and saving a soul in the process.
The mystery doesn’t bring many twists and turns, but I wouldn’t call this a flaw so much as a difference between a mystery and a noir. The mystery subgenre demands lots of clues and suspect lists, whereas noir seems to focus more on the characters and setting. There are clues to be had here, but they’re obvious enough that an experienced reader will identify likely suspects from very early in the book. But guessing the killer doesn’t seem like the point, so much as exploring the lead trying to build a life with someone else even though she knows it will end badly.
And I did find the lead character interesting, though she was frustrating in ways that led to an ending I didn’t find especially satisfying. I appreciated it from the perspective of foreshadowing and story structure, but I found the afterlife elements to be somewhat underbaked for being such key aspects of the story. Everyone seemed bizarrely confident in who would end up in Heaven and who in Hell, and I wasn’t always convinced by either their confidence or the way in which it influenced major decisions in moments of crisis.
Even without sticking the landing, Even Though I Knew the End is an interesting story with a quality narrative voice, and it’s certainly one I’d recommend to fans of fantasy noir—especially queer fantasy noir. But it’s a little bit outside my wheelhouse, and the ending never set quite right, which keeps me from viewing it as highly as those who made it a Hugo finalist.
Recommended if you like: fantasy noir, queer folks working their way through hostile societies.
Can I use it for Bingo? It’s a Book Club book that’s a Novella that Features Angels and Demons and is a Novella. But not, as far as I can tell, any hard mode category.
Overall rating: 15 of Tar Vol’s 20. Four stars on Goodreads.