This Rebel Heart by Katherine Locke
In the middle of Budapest, there is a river. Csilla knows the river is magic. During WWII, the river kept her family safe when they needed it most–safe from the Holocaust. But that was before the Communists seized power. Before her parents were murdered by the Soviet police. Before Csilla knew things about her father’s legacy that she wishes she could forget.
Now Csilla keeps her head down, planning her escape from this country that has never loved her the way she loves it. But her carefully laid plans fall to pieces when her parents are unexpectedly, publicly exonerated. As the protests in other countries spur talk of a larger revolution in Hungary, Csilla must decide if she believes in the promise and magic of her deeply flawed country enough to risk her life to help save it, or if she should let it burn to the ground.
DISCLAIMER: I received an eARC from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
Set during the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, This Rebel Heart is at once historical fiction and historical fantasy.
Csilla’s world is one void of color. It exists in shades of gray, ghosts of a vibrancy harder and harder still to remember. She too, exists in shades of gray, working hard to evade notice of the state that executed her parents, the same state her father tried so hard to build into something better. Every step is dangerous for her under Communist occupation by the Soviet Union, especially since Csilla is Jewish.
But when revolution arrives, and the river’s magic calls to Csilla clearer than ever, it is time to make a decision. Can she still flee this country, the one that has never shared her love, or can she learn to love it anew, and see what it might become if she stays? It is more than her life at risk. It is her entire country, everything is has been, everything it could still be.
And maybe, just maybe, it might be worth it.
Every page of this book is a wonder, a gift.
From the very beginning of This Rebel Heart, I fell in love with Katherine Locke’s prose. Every word is chosen so carefully, used so artfully, and the resulting atmosphere is outstanding. Even though the story is set in Communist Hungary in 1956, in a fantastical version where the world no longer has any color but shades of gray, you never once feel that the city of Budapest is dull. The prose takes the mundane and elevates it into something fantastic, at once weaving things plain with things utterly magical. What appears to be metaphor is magic, is truth, and there’s never an end to the sense of wonder and awe you get drifting through Csilla’s flawed city.
Truly, This Rebel Heart is a fine example of how to make your setting a character in its own right. The river and city alike stand tall throughout the story, more active players than mere landscape or set dressing. It’s probably not enough to say that I’m enamored with the technique at work here, but I’m at a loss for words beyond that.
“Everywhere we walk in this city, we walk on ghosts.”
As enchanting as the setting is, it’s also haunting, because these events are directly related to WWII and the political climate thereafter. Csilla is Jewish, and it affects every moment of her life. From the time the river saved her family from Nazis, cradling them in its heart, providing for them for months, to every day now, when she and her aunt keep their train tickets out of the country a secret, aching to go somewhere where Jews might belong, if only for a little while. The violence inflicted on Csilla and her community is no small thing, and her faith touches her choices in every way, from what she believes in, to the acts of magic she draws on when she sets her heart on a future that might still be.
Not to mention that one of the characters is the literal angel of death, come to Hungary in advance of great violence. Azrael is no reaper, but instead an angel who brings comfort to those about to die. His presence, while soft, even tender, is at once a warning; he is not sent without cause.
For every happy moment, for every bit of triumph in This Rebel Heart, there is no forgetting the violence and tragedy that lie before it, or the heartache yet to come. The somber atmosphere touches everything, making moments of wonder and love soar higher, making moments of fear and sorrow cut deeper.
This could be my 2022 book of the year.
On the one hand, it’s a little early to make the call. On the other, this is one of the best-written books I’ve read in a long time, and it has refused to let me rest for long. It’s powerful and aching and brilliant, and it’s also one of the few books to make me cry. It’s a story that captures heart and mind alike, and it seems impossible to that it fits so much into a single book. The enormity of it feels beyond comprehension sometimes, and yet here it is.
This Rebel Heart is far and away the best historical fiction book I’ve read, fantasy elements or not. I recommend it without question, though perhaps with a touch of heartache.
CW: loss of a loved one, Nazism, antisemitism, child death, genocide, smoking, suicide mention, homophobia, sexual harassment, violence (including gun violence), nudity