A Supernatural Noir Novella About Love at All Costs: Even Though I Knew the End by C.L. Polk

the cover of Even Though I Knew the End

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What would you give up everything for? If you knew you were doomed, would you keep fighting?

In fewer than 140 pages, the award-winning Even Though I Knew the End by C. L. Polk posits these questions with a heroine whose love and determination propel her through a fast-paced investigation to catch a killer and save her soul.

Ten years ago, Helen Brandt sold her soul to the devil to revive her brother from an accident that claimed her whole family. He’s not exactly grateful to be yanked from paradise by the sister who’s been branded a warlock, but in the meantime, Helen has met the love of her life in a lesbian bar and made a living as a mystic in 1940s Chicago. Just before Helen reaches her expiration date, she’s given one last mission, with the reward being the return of her soul. While her ultimate fate is still eternal damnation, if she catches an infamous serial killer, she can live out the rest of her mortal life with Edith Jarosky.

To say more would be saying too much, but rest assured this is a story that builds on itself until the end. My favorite novellas work in perfect choreography, with no paragraph wasted and every storytelling element woven together around a central ribbon. To me, Even Though I Knew the End is one such novella. Rich in atmosphere and with a poignant thematic core, it is paced to keep the reader achingly aware of the protagonist’s countdown clock as the stakes of her mission only increase.  

Helen is an intensely devoted, driven, and charismatic protagonist. The natural affection between her and Edith makes their relationship heartwarming. As revelations about Edith come to light, I do wish she got more of a chance to shine with her own contributions, especially as she is Helen’s driving force. The couple are shown to work together in perfect harmony, and I would have loved to see their teamwork demonstrated more, as well as have Edith’s character explored. 

Two other characters stood out to me in particular. Without getting into spoilers, if you enjoy powerful, charismatic (and not-so-charismatic) beings in your supernatural fiction, this cast will be for you. Edith’s complicated relationship with her brother rounds out the dynamics. With a smoky atmosphere evoked in pointed descriptions, even though I know the end, this is a book I would happily revisit.

A note on the worldbuilding: This is set in a world with nonbinary angels, where being gay will not condemn you, but warlock deals and sacrilege will.

Other content warnings include death and violence as well as references to period-typical homophobia, sexism, ableism, institutionalization, and conversion therapy. 

Emory Rose is a lover of the written word, especially all things whimsical, fantastical, and romantic. They regularly participate in National Novel Writing Month as well as NYC Midnight’s fiction writing challenges. They are fueled by sapphic novellas and chocolate.

Danika reviews The Restless Dark by Erica Waters

the cover of The Restless Dark

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During October this year, I tried to pack my TBR with seasonal, Halloween-adjacent reads, and The Restless Dark looked like the perfect match. It’s a sapphic YA horror/thriller book set at a true crime podcast event where listeners compete to try to find the unrecovered bones of a serial killer. As the retreat continues, though, it begins to seem like the danger isn’t past…

Lucy only narrowly escaped being one of the Cloudkiss Killer’s victims, and she was the last person to see him alive. She’s gone on this retreat not out a love of true crime — a genre that’s profited off and sensationalized her trauma — but because she hopes to find closure. Carolina, the other point of view character, has come to try to assure herself she’s nothing like the Cloudkiss Killer, even though she may have killed her boyfriend. (Or maybe it was an accident? She can’t remember.)

Lucy and Carolina end up in a group with Maggie, a psychology student writing a paper about all the fascinating characters at this retreat. They almost immediately end up in a tense dynamic with each other: both Caroline and Maggie are interested in Lucy, but Lucy falls for Maggie. She appreciates that Maggie gives her agency, and she’s frustrated that Carolina keeps trying to protect her. She doesn’t want to feel like a victim anymore. Carolina, though, is worried that Lucy is beginning to become violent herself, and she knows how much that can destroy your psyche, because that’s what she’s going through.

This plays out at Cloudkiss Canyon, which the locals all avoid. It’s coated with an ever-present, unexplained fog, and the legend is that the fog will show you your true self, the one you fear and avoid, if you let it. There’s a dreamlike quality to their time here, and it’s unclear if something supernatural is happening or not. Carolina, especially, seems to be losing time, which is all the more worrying when it becomes obvious someone is hurting people at the retreat.

The setting and danger contribute to a tense, claustrophobic environment where everyone starts to turn on each other. They seem to be acting out of character — is it the fog affecting them, or is this who they really are?

This isn’t a mystery; I found it pretty easy to predict who was responsible for everything going wrong, but in a way, that just contributed to the tension, and I found myself compelled to keep reading just to get to the point where it all came to a head.

The Restless Dark is a moody, atmospheric story perfect for fall reading. I was completely absorbed while reading it, even if it’s not a book I found especially memorable. If you’re looking for a fall read that’s chilling without being gory, this is a great choice — and I always appreciate an F/F/F love triangle.

Danika reviews Throwaway Girls by Andrea Contos

Throwaway Girls by Andrea Contos

This book was a real rollercoaster of a read: I was intrigued by the beginning, felt the middle dragged, and then I was completely on board again by the end. It’s about Caroline, whose best friend, Madison, has just gone missing. Caroline hasn’t been having a great time even before this. Her mother sent her to a conversion camp (where Caroline then set the place on fire and escaped). Her father doesn’t believe in anxiety or depression, and would try to swap out her medication for a juice cleanse if her knew about it. The only light in her life was Willa, her girlfriend, who she’d see by driving across the border into West Virginia and hanging out at a seedy bar with a fake ID. But Willa broke up with her and moved away. And now her best friend has disappeared. Caroline has reasons to not trust the police, so she’s determined to find Madison herself.

This is, unsurprisingly, a dark book. It begins with the lines “Everything started with the body at the edge of the lake. I know that now.” On top of Caroline’s abusive family, there’s another unnamed narrator who has gone through her own horrors: she’s living in poverty, and has seen two of her mother’s boyfriends overdose. (Unlike Caroline, who goes to a prestigious private school.)

I recommended this book on All the Books, where I have recently become a cohost. I read a few reviews in preparation, and I found out that a lot of readers didn’t like the main character. They felt she was mean, and “unlikable.” Personally, when I hear someone say a book has an “unlikable” female main character, I head straight for it. Usually, it just means they’re flawed. In Caroline’s case, I think it’s because she’s angry, and rightfully so. Do I agree with all her decisions? No, but I understand them, and I can even respect them. She is a survivor. She hasn’t had a safe environment to grow up in. So she’s always got an exit plan, and she’s not afraid of using it, even if it’s “mean.” The one who tempers this is Willa. She was clearly Caroline’s anchor: she describes her as “Willa was quiet strength, endless optimism, the girl everyone told their secrets to because they knew they’d be safe with her.” She is unmoored without her, and prior to Madison’s disappearance, her entire focus was getting through the days until graduation and then her 18th birthday, when she could finally escape for good.

There are a few other characters here: two friends who help Caroline in her search for Madison. Both are possible love interests, putting this in the bisexual character with a male and female love interest category–sort of. Because Caroline has very little space to consider either of them as romantic interests, and is still very much in love with Willa. Also: what is with the bi love triangles where the guy is just a total asshole (and the girl is very sweet and on every possible level a better choice)? I couldn’t stand Jake, who says that some people are “puddles” (and Caroline, of course, is the ocean), and is judgmental of anyone who isn’t rich, and who asks Caroline, “Why do you like girls?”

As I said, I had an up and down experience reading this. I found it difficult to get into the writing style: things seemed to keep happening abruptly, and I felt like I had missed a paragraph or a page. It’s also weird that men being framed for rape/statutory rape is an ongoing motif. Considering how much this book has to do with misogyny and which women are considered victims (and worth seeking justice for), I found that a very strange choice. I should also note that because it’s a very dark book, there are trigger warnings for murder and violence, and there’s also smoking and drug use by the teen characters. For me, the ending made me glad I stuck with it, though I can also understand why it lost some people. If you’re interested in reading about an angry, flawed character who finds herself discovering a system that considers poor and racialized victims “throwaway girls,” check this one out. If you’ve already read it, or don’t care about spoilers, here’s what I think about the ending.

It was interesting, at this point in time, to read a thriller that is so skeptical of the justice system and the police. (Caroline was “rescued” by the police while running from conversion camp, who then delivered her back to her abusive mother.) [Spoilers, highlight to read] Because of that, the murderer made perfect sense. And although it’s an exaggeration, the idea of men with power weaponizing it against women, especially poor and racialized women, is not. Caroline, already angry at the world, is consumed with rage to learn that Willa has died–and that she was trying to reach out to her. She had the opportunity to save her, and didn’t realize it, didn’t put it together. It’s sickening, but it’s an interesting story choice. She is overly harsh with Madison, of course, but Madison’s choices did lead to her girlfriend’s brutal murder, so I think that’s understandable. The moment that really turned the book around for me, though, is that she shot him herself. Many stories take that moment, where the hero has a gun pointing at the villain, and have them walk away. That’s a valid choice in some stories, but not in this one. Caroline doesn’t trust the justice system. She is facing the man who killed the love of her life, and many other women. There is no reason she wouldn’t pull the trigger. But I was impressed with this YA novel following through on it. And honestly, I cheered for her attending his funeral just to spit on his grave. She may not be “nice,” but her choices made sense, and I didn’t blame her for them. I think they made for a better story, and I wish we had more stories about women’s anger. [end spoilers]

Megan Casey reviews The Dead by Ingrid Black

thedead

In a 2013 interview, Anne Laughlin lists Ingrid Black as one of her favorite lesbian mystery writers. It isn’t clear from the interview whether she was aware that “Ingrid Black” is actually two writers—Ellis O’Hanlon and her husband Ian McConnel. Nor is it mentioned whether she was aware that O’Hanlon, a journalist, has written flippant comments about people identifying as transgender.

But having gotten that out of the way, The Dead is a right good serial-killer mystery. Saxon, the main character, writes books on true crime. Like Shiloh in Paulette Callen’s excellent Command of Silence, Saxon has only one name, but this doesn’t seem to hinder her greatly. After all, her significant other—Grace Fitzgerald—is Detective Chief Inspector of the Dublin Police, so Saxon can get away with a lot.

The story begins when a man calling himself Ed Fagan begins murdering young prostitutes and leaving religiously themed notes at the scene of the crime. Trouble is, Saxon knows for a fact that Fagan has been dead for years. In fact, she knew the man well enough to begin writing a book about him. So with the help of two profilers, a medical examiner, and of course her S.O. Grace, she decides to hunt for the killer’s real identity before he kills too many more people.

But maybe it’s me that’s being flippant, because, despite what seems to be a same-old, been-there-done-that plot, The Dead is a wet, cold, and dark investigation. Saxon herself has been numbed by her proximity to death and death dealers. Her point of view is a depressing, introspective, quasi-philosophical one. This is how she describes a crime scene, for instance: “A place where there had been such pain and terror was always afterwards so quiet, and yet it would never be entirely free of its past. Bad things lingered, and it turned those places bad in turn, so that other bad things happened in turn.” This is not light reading and the novel sometimes seems to have as many twists and turns as Dublin has dark alleys.

The writing itself is very good and O’Hanlon and McConnel’s voices blend so perfectly that Anne Laughlin (or any other reader) can be forgiven for not suspecting a collaboration. I hope she can forgive me if I am wrong about suspecting that she patterned the unfortunate ending of her first book, Veritas, on this one. On the other hand, the ending of The Dead is first rate.

Downsides? Well, Saxon doesn’t sound much like the American she is supposed to be–and even less like a Bostonian. She knows that baseball teams field nine players, but most of her expressions are Irish or British. Too, there is no sense of lesbian community here; Saxon’s relationship with Grace could just as easily have been with a man—and vice versa. There is no sex, no romance, not even much touching. It makes me wonder why the authors chose to call either Saxon or Grace a lesbian. Since neither author has evidently had much experience in being a lesbian, why not identify their characters as straight—especially if they are going to act the part?

Despite this, I would give this book close to 4 stars, and I look forward to reading the next book in the series, hoping they fix the weaknesses in this one.

For more than 175 other Lesbian Mystery reviews by Megan Casey, see her website at http://sites.google.com/site/theartofthelesbianmysterynovel/  or join her Goodreads Lesbian Mystery group at http://www.goodreads.com/group/show/116660-lesbian-mysteries