BOOK REVIEW: The Spy With the Red Balloon by Katherine Locke (5 Stars)

Cover of The Spy With the Red Balloon by Katherine Locke, depicting two red balloons on a background of the star-speckled night sky and search light beams

Rating: Five star rating represented by five bumblebees (5 out of 5)

Siblings Ilse and Wolf hide a deep secret in their blood: with it, they can work magic. And the government just found out.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 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? — Goodreads

Please see the end of the post for content warnings.

The Spy With the Red Balloon is the second book in The Balloonmakers series and set in the same universe, though it doesn’t feature the same characters. It’s more of a prequel delving into the origins of balloon magic, and I loved it even more than The Girl With the Red Balloon. It’s one of my favourite reads so far in 2019, and Katherine Locke is now definitely on my list of favourite authors.

I loved both Ilse and Wolf so much. The book alternates between their POVs, and even though I tend to prefer to stay with a single character throughout a book, I enjoyed both of their narrative voices a lot.

16-year-old Ilse is the bolder of the two siblings, while her older brother Wolf is more reserved. Ilse is a physics genius, and she is using her scientific knowledge to study the magic that is in their blood. When Wolf is sent to Europe to complete his mission of sabotage, Ilse finds a way to stay in touch via magical means. Ilse, for her part, is enlisted to study ways to employ magic in delivering a nuclear bomb, she is more interested in sending Wolf useful magic equations all the way across the world. Their sibling relationship is so wonderful, and it’s clear that they love and admire each other, and value each other’s opinions.

“I’m going to miss you.”

“I’ll miss you, too,” I said softly. How cold I ever have wanted to leave her shadow? All she’s ever wanted to do was stand in mine. For all her genius, Ilse was still my little sister. She still looked up to me, without ever realizing how she outshone me.

Ilse and Wolf are Jewish, and they’re also both queer. Ilse is bisexual and falls in love with another girl in the course of the book. Her science group of magic-practicing girls is delightful and I loved all of them, especially Stella. Stella is black and therefore continuously underestimated even though she is brilliant, even more so than Ilse, but I loved how much respect Ilse had for Stella and her superior knowledge. It was also incredibly sweet to read about Ilse discovering her bisexuality, her blossoming feelings for Polly, and her scientific approach to determining whether she really liked girls, kissing a girl being an important step in this particular scientific experiment.

Meanwhile, Wolf is off in Europe receiving rudimentary training for spying and soldiering, and is reunited with his childhood best friend Max, whom he hasn’t seen since Max enlisted a year ago. They parted on bad terms and have to find their way back to each other, Wolf grappling with the fact that his complete disinterest in anything romantic or sexual seems to have a Max-shaped exception. I loved their relationship so much! I said on Twitter that it was giving me strong Bucky/Steve vibes except that they actually get to kiss—and they use parachutes, unlike some people who will remain nameless. Wolf and Max are far from a carbon copy of Bucky and Steve, but their relationship dynamics and circumstances reminded me strongly of them, and just got me right in the feelings.

There’s also some disability representation, although I was at first a little hesitant to tag it as such. I still really want to mention it, but it’s mildly spoiler-y, so if you’d rather avoid that, skip to the next paragraph! Max suffers some head trauma mid-book that impacts both his intellectual and physical functions. It’s not clear for the majority of the book whether or not it’s just a temporary injury, though by the end of the book it’s confirmed that the injury will have a lasting impact on Max’s health, as he continues to suffer from debilitating headaches. That’s a kind of disability rep we don’t see often, hence why I’m tagging it as rep even though the disability is acquired late in the book.

And of course, I loved the world-building. I’m a huge fan of history retellings but with magic, and Katherine Locke strikes the perfect balance between the historical and the fantastical. I was fascinated by the balloon magic in the first Balloonmakers book, and I was once again absolutely spellbound. Combine that with spies and intrigue, and you’ve got the recipe for what to me is a perfect book.

I truly cannot express how much I love The Spy With the Red Balloon and I want everyone to read it! You can read it as a standalone, although I also highly recommend  The Girl With the Red Balloon. (You can read my review of it here.) Please everyone love my queer Jewish babies! Katherine Locke is an amazing author, and I can’t wait to see what they have in store next.

CONTENT NOTES: Holocaust mention, explicit description of the murder of Jewish prisoners, character death, physical abuse of a minor during an interrogation, racism, racial segregation, homophobia.


Have you read The Balloonmakers series or any of Katherine Locke’s other books? What did you think? Let’s chat in the comments below!

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