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: The Dark Monk, The Beggar King, and The Poisoned Pilgrim

dark monkThe Dark Monk
by Oliver Pötzsch
463 pages
Published 2009
Historical Fiction/Mystery

The Beggar King
by Oliver Pötzsch
466 pages
Published 2010
Historical Fiction/Mystery

The Poisoned Pilgrim
by Oliver Pötzsch
496 pages
Published 2012
Historical Fiction/Mystery

I cracked open the pages of The Dark Monk with a certain amount of satisfaction and glee – to be rejoining a world I lost myself in with The Hangman’s Daughter – to catch up with characters I’d fallen in love with some months ago – is always a heady feeling. I reviewed The Hangman’s Daughter on this blog already, and mentioned I’d be looking for the sequels. On my last trip to the library, I happened to see all three of them, so I snagged them with a grin that made my husband laugh. Pötzsch has continued his amazing storytelling in these three books, and I’m still amazed that books originally written in German can flow so well – lyrically, even – in English. I’m sure that’s in large part due to the excellent translation work of Lee Chadeayne.

beggar kingJakob Kuisl (the hangman of Schongau), his daughter Magdalena, and her beau Simon Fronweiser are again up to their old tricks in these three books, letting their curiosity lead them into mysteries they perhaps should have stayed clear of. In The Dark Monk, the three find themselves embroiled in the hunt for lost Templar treasure. In The Beggar King, Jakob is framed for the murder of his sister, and must prove his innocence with the help of Magdalena and Simon. The Poisoned Pilgrim takes place a few years after The Beggar King, and involves the three attempting to prove the innocence of one of Jakob’s oldest friends. Woven throughout the mysteries are portrayals of everyday (and not so everyday!) life in 17th century Bavaria, from taking care of the sick to child-rearing to executions.

One thing that continues to impress me about the books is how they treat torture. Torture to achieve a confession is a regular duty of a Hangman, but it’s not treated lightly in these books. It’s described, and it’s treated as a horrible thing, but it’s also not so descriptive that it crosses the line into gore. It’s a mark of Pötzsch’s skill that he can take a man that does this regularly – tortures and executes people, even people he knows are innocent, if he can’t get out of it – and makes him likable. He makes us sympathize with him.

I enjoyed these three books just as much as I did the first. The action is well-paced, the plots are well-thought out and complex, and the characters are rich and enjoyable. It’s easy to see the amount of research Pötzsch has put into his setting, and the books are richer for it. I love this series.

pilgrimFrom the back of The Dark Monk:

1660: Winter has settled thick over a sleeping village in the Bavarian Alps, ensuring that every farmer and servant is indoors the night a parish priest discovers he’s been poisoned. As numbness creeps up his body, he summons the last of his strength to scratch a cryptic sign in the frost.

Following a trail of riddles, hangman Jakob Kuisl, his headstrong daughter Magdalena, and the town physician’s son team up with the priest’s aristocratic sister to investigate. What they uncover will lead them back the Crusades, unlocking a troubled history of internal church politics and sending them on a chase for a treasure of the Knights Templar.

But they’re not the only ones after the legendary fortune. A team of dangerous and mysterious monks is always close behind, tracking their every move, speaking Latin in the shadows, giving off a strange, intoxicating scent. And to throw the hangman off their trail, they have made sure he is tasked with capturing a band of thieves roving the countryside, attacking solitary travelers and spreading panic.

From the back of The Beggar King:

1662: Jakob Kuisl, the hangman of a village in the Alps, receives a letter from his sister calling him to the imperial city of Regensburg, where a gruesome sight awaits him: her throat has been slit. When the city constable discovers Kuisl alongside the corpse, he locks him in a dungeon, where Kuisl will experience firsthand the torture he’s administered himself for years. As nightmares assail him, Kuisl can only hope to prevail on the Regensburg executioner to show mercy to a fellow hangman. 

Kuisl’s steely daughter, Magdalena, and her young doctor paramour, Simon, rush to Regensburg to try to save Jakob, enlisting an underground network of beggars, a beer-brewing monk, and an Italian playboy for help. Navigating the labyrinthine city, they learn there is much more behind the false accusation than a personal vendetta: a plan that will endanger the entire German Empire. 

From the back of The Poisoned Pilgrim:

1666: The monastery at Andechs has long been a pilgrimage destination, but when the hangman’s daughter, Magdalena, her doctor husband, Simon, and their two small children arrive there, they learn that the monks have far larger concerns than saying Mass and receiving alms. It seems that once again the hangman’s family has fallen into a mysterious and dangerous adventure.

Two monks at the monastery experiment with cutting-edge technology, including a method of deflecting the lightning that has previously set the monastery ablaze. When one of the monks disappears and his lab is destroyed, foul play is suspected. Who better to investigate than the famed hangman Jakob Kuisl? But as the hangman and his family attempt to solve the mystery of the missing monk, they must deal with the eccentric denizens of the monastery and villagers who view the monks’ inventions as witchcraft that must be destroyed at all costs.

The Hangman’s Daughter by Oliver Pötzsch

hangman's daughter

The Hangman’s Daughter
by Oliver Pötzsch
435 pages
Published 2010
Historical Fiction

I spent my entire day at the Maryland Renaissance Festival yesterday. (And man, do my feet hurt!) But it was an absolute blast; we watched the three sirens of “Sirena” sing some haunting melodies (and “steal” my husband’s soul and eat it as part of their act!), watched a couple of hilarious comedy shows (Fight School slayed me) and watched the final round of jousting. Did you know jousting is Maryland’s official sport? How cool is that?

On the way to the fair I finished The Hangman’s Daughter. The Hangman’s Daughter was originally written in German by Oliver Pötzsch, but my version was translated to English by Lee Chadeayne. I didn’t realize until I read the “About the Author” followed by “About the Translator” that it wasn’t written originally in English! It flowed exceptionally well. The story revolves around the mysterious deaths of three children, the midwife the town wants to pin it on, and a mystery surrounding the sabotage of the leper house being built just outside the walls of the town. The Hangman is actually one of the most sympathetic characters in the story, which I found unique. Usually the executioner/torturer is painted as evil. Along with his daughter and the town doctor’s son, an accomplished doctor himself, they attempt to solve the mystery of who’s killing children before the town can convict and sentence the midwife.

There are three more books in this series, The Dark MonkThe Beggar King, and The Poisoned Pilgrim. Definitely going to look for those!

(Edit: I have since read the aforementioned sequels, and reviewed them here. They were excellent!)

I REALLY enjoyed this book, and I will probably try to track down other English translations of this author’s work. I don’t read too many mysteries (though I do have a few more in the queue at the moment) but this book really swept me up and carried me along for the ride. It’s set in 17th century Bavaria, 70 years after the last witch craze. Jakob Kuisl is the town’s Hangman, and, as it turns out, one of the author’s ancestors! The author apparently wrote the novel as a way of connecting with his roots; he is descended from the Kuisls, who were Hangmen for generations.

I don’t want to say too much for fear of spoiling the mystery, so I’ll go straight to the back of the book.

From the back of The Hangman’s Daughter:

Simon turned the boy on his belly. With a vigorous tug he ripped open the shirt on the back as well. A groan went through the crowd.

Beneath one shoulder blade there was a palm-size sign of a kind that Simon had never seen before – a washed-out purple circle with a cross protruding from the bottom.

For a moment, there was total silence on the pier. Then the first screams rose. “Witchcraft! There’s witchcraft involved!” Somebody bawled: “The witches have come back to Schongau! They’re getting our kids!”