Book Review: The Spy with the Red Balloon

spy with the red balloonThe Spy with the Red Balloon
by Katherine Locke
Young Adult/Historical Fantasy
356 pages
Published October 2018

This is the sequel to The Girl with the Red Balloon – though chronologically, it actually takes place first. Since it mostly deals with different characters in related but different events, though, it doesn’t really read like a prequel. Really the only bad thing I have to say is that it didn’t answer the question of what happened at the end of Girl with the Red Balloon, and to be honest, I don’t actually mind. Spy could be read as a completely standalone book and be just as satisfying. There’s very little overlap between the two books, even though they deal with similar themes, in the same world.

I personally think SPY is better than GIRL, but I find that a lot with second books. I think authors tend to have a little more confidence by the second book; they know a little more about their world. They’ve gotten feedback from readers about what worked and what didn’t in the first book, and can somewhat adjust course based on that if they’re good. And Locke is excellent. I really liked GIRL, don’t get me wrong, but I LOVED SPY. The characters were fantastic, and the way she addressed Wolf’s demisexuality was perfect.

The book is set in a time when being gay was straight-up illegal, and one of Wolf’s fellow spies asks him about it because it was apparently in his file. He tells her there’s no evidence of that because he doesn’t feel that way about ANYONE. (He’s lying, but we’ll get to that.) He can appreciate when people are attractive, but he doesn’t feel desire that way – except for one person. One person, who he’d known for years and been best friends with before those feelings showed themselves. They’d never acted on it, which is why there’s no evidence of it. Demisexual is on the asexual spectrum, and as such it varies wildly in terms of how sexual a person is, but Wolf’s demisexuality is the closest I’ve seen in fiction to my own, so it’s really special to me.

Veering away from representation specific to me, SPY, like GIRL, stars Jewish people at its heart. This time we have a pair of Jewish siblings from America, each fighting in WW II in their own way. Ilse with her brain, helping develop magic for the US, and Wolf more directly, sneaking around Germany and disrupting their forces. GIRL dealt more with the oppressed German Jews, while SPY shows us the other side – the Jews who are fighting back for their kin, even though they could stay in the US and be safe.

Both books are excellent reads. I’ve had the fortune to interact with Katherine Locke on Twitter quite a lot, and at this point I will pretty much read anything she publishes. I love her characters and her plotlines and the obvious care she takes with the representation. Fantastic book.

From the cover of The Spy with the Red Balloon:

In a nuclear arms race, you’d use anything for an edge. Even magic.

Ilse and Wolf Klein bear many secrets. Genius Ilse is unsure if her parents will ever accept her love of physics. Her brother, Wolf, strives for a quiet life, though he worries there’s no place in the world for people like him. But their deepest secret lies within their blood: with it, they can work magic.

Blackmailed into service during World War II, Ilse lends her magic to America’s newest weapon, the atom bomb, while Wolf goes  behind enemy lines to sabotage Germany’s nuclear program. It’s a dangerous mission, but if Hitler were to create the bomb first, the results would be catastrophic.

When Wolf’s plane is shot down, his entire mission is thrown into jeopardy. Wolf needs Ilse’s help to develop the magic that will keep him alive, but with a spy afoot in Ilse’s laboratory, the secret letters she sends to Wolf begin to look treasonous. Can Ilse prove her loyalty – and find a way to help her brother – before their time runs out?

Loyalties and identities will be tested in this sweeping fantasy and fast-paced thriller that bravely explores the tensions at the dawn of the nuclear age.

Book Review: That Inevitable Victorian Thing

victorianThat Inevitable Victorian Thing
by E. K. Johnston
Fiction/Alternate History
327 pages
Published 2017

Representation, bitches! This book features a bisexual, intersex young woman. (I say woman, because she is female-presenting and uses female pronouns.) It also features a not-quite-love-triangle that turns into something more like polyamory. (Sorry, that’s a bit of a spoiler, but you can see it coming from a mile away, and the cover description heavily implies the same.)

It’s not realistic in the least – everything falls together nicely and it’s a bit of a “princess saves the day by virtue of being a princess” kind of plot. But the twist on the history is a very pleasant one – and making the British Empire an Empire that values diversity and the melding of cultures and not looking down on anyone because they’re different is a really nice change of pace. It’s a WONDERFUL bit of escapist fantasy given today’s world, I have to say.

I’d actually really like to see the darker side of this same world explored. One of the main plot points in the book is that there is a computer database of genetics. Everyone in the British Empire, when they turn 18, is encouraged to have their DNA sequenced and entered into the computer to find good genetic matches. They then have the opportunity to chat with those matches and eventually meet them. It’s accepted custom, and you’re definitely viewed as odd if you choose NOT to do it, though Helena’s parents were a love match and never had their DNA matched through the computer. Helena’s love interest is a boy she grew up with, she really only ran her DNA through the computer for kicks. So it’s not mandatory – except for royals. But that this computer and database exists leaves room for a darker side. What about genetic modification? Forced marriages for certain genetic outcomes? That has to be happening somewhere. That Inevitable Victorian Thing really only looked at the fun, light-hearted, good uses of this technology. I’d love to see the other side.

Oh – while the book definitely has a Victorian flavor, it’s definitely set in modern day, or perhaps a little past. It’s not Victorian era.

Fun little book. A good escape from a racist, homophobic world to a more diverse, accepting one. But a little TOO fluffy bunny for my personal tastes.

The book is set entirely in Ontario, making it part of my Read Canadian Challenge. You can find the rest of my Read Canadian books here:
1. An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth
2. The Red Winter Trilogy
3. Station Eleven
4. The Courier
5. The Last Neanderthal
6. American War
7. Next Year, For Sure
8. this book!
9. All The Rage
10. The Clothesline Swing
11. Saints and Misfits
12. Tomboy Survival Guide
13. The Wolves of Winter

From the cover of That Inevitable Victorian Thing:

Set in a near-future world where the British Empire never fell – a surprising, romantic, and thought-provoking story of love, duty, and the small moments that change people and the world.

Victoria-Margaret is the crown princess of the Empire, a descendant of Queen Victoria I. The traditions of genetically arranged matchmaking will soon guide Margaret into a politically advantageous marriage and a life of duty. But first she’ll have one summer of freedom in a far corner of the Empire. Posing as a commoner in Toronto, she meets Helena Marcus, daughter of one of the Empire’s greatest placement geneticists, and August Callaghan, the heir to a powerful shipping firm besieged by American pirates. In a summer of high-society debutante balls, politically charged tea parties, and raucous country dances, Margaret, Helena, and August discover they share an extraordinary bond and maybe a one-in-a-million chance to have what they want and to change the course of history in the process.