Demons, angels and dangerous bargains meet in C.L. Polk’s brilliant novella Even Though I Knew the End, set in a vividly drawn 1940s Chicago and featuring a sapphic romance and sinister blood magic. When Helen Brandt sold her soul in return for the life of her brother, she lost not only her place in the Brotherhood of the Compass, but her relationship with her brother too. Reduced to working as a magical private eye, when she takes a commission to photograph a particularly violent crime scene she’s determined not to get drawn into the mystery…but when she’s offered the reward of her own soul returned to her, she can’t help but take the job. It would mean her life is her own again, to spend in peace with her girlfriend Edith, but in order to claim her prize she has to track down the murderous White City Vampire and survive to tell the tale.
Despite its short length as a novella this is packed full of vibrant worldbuilding, compelling characters and mysterious, intriguing magic, and it covers a lot of ground both narratively and thematically. Secret societies, dark magical rituals, a hardboiled 40s-era tone and feel (think sharp suits, Chestertons, sapphic speakeasies and a cynical, dryly witty first person narration) and a smattering of angelic lore all rub shoulders with a painful family history, a warm and touching romance, and a backdrop of everyday sexism and a deeply-rooted gender power imbalance. There isn’t necessarily time to delve into every theme and idea as deeply as, say, a novel-length story might have allowed, but there’s more than enough depth here in both the characters and the plot to keep the pace moving and offer plenty of food for thought.
Is it grimdark? Well it’s maybe not the darkest of the dark, and its blend of historical noir and angelic magic is quite far removed from the usual secondary world fantasy stylings. That being said, it’s very much a story about doing whatever it takes for love – both familial and romantic – regardless of the cost, and its real-world themes of oppression, power imbalance and violence towards women should feel entirely relevant to fans of the genre. Irrespective of labels though, it’s just a fascinating and brilliantly-told story with deeply personal stakes, a tangible sense of danger, and a clever narrative backbone in the way Helen’s pact with the devil shadows everything, lending a tangible sense of urgency and a crucial theme of choice. Short and pacy it may be, but it’s also richly detailed and brilliantly characterful – well worth checking out.