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August 2018: Espionage > Red Sparrow--Jason Matthews (5 stars)

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message 1: by Michael (new)

Michael (mike999) | 569 comments A solid hit for me as an espionage tale of the new Cold War between Russia and the U.S. The sense of authenticity on the strategies and capers in intelligence and counter-intelligence operations is high, reflecting the extensive career of the author in CIA operations in diverse areas of world conflict, including Russia. Less realistic is yet another cinematic heroine with a chip on her shoulder, Dominika Egorova, You know--beautiful, brilliant, and deadly. It doesn’t take much arm-twisting to get me to accept this trope. Matthews doesn’t just drop a Salander-type of kickass avatar on our plate (for the movie, starring Jennifer Lawrence, I suppose we will be thinking of Katniss roots). He develops her with enough detail and depth you can empathize with her wanting to excel in the Russian secret services (first FSB, then SVR, i.e. the equivalent of FBI and CIA) and then begin to understand why a good agent might be tempted to become a double agent for the CIA.

Dominika had her ballet career cut short by a deliberate injury to her foot by a competitor. Her uncle, who is a Deputy Director in the FSB, talks her into a job of seducing and defeating an unruly oligarch, an operation that ends in traumatic violence. In response to this crass exploitation of her looks, she seeks admission to the academy for intelligence agents, up to then an all-male enclave. But her uncle persuades her to prove herself more in the sexpionage line before he will pull the strings for her goal. This calls for completing training at the “Sparrow School”, where the curriculum is in the arts of seduction in the service of compromising diplomats and other targets by blackmail. Dominika works out a way to get enough leverage to start a career involving the higher skills of “turning” useful people and stealing secrets.

Her assignment is to get close to the CIA agent serving as the handler for a mole somewhere high in the Russian intelligence hierarchy. Ironically, this other hero of our tale, Nathaniel, ends up getting assigned to turn Dominika as a path to find a Russian mole serving in critical weapons development program in the U.S. We get a lot of cat and mouse scenarios on both sides until we almost get dizzy figuring out who is the predator and who is the prey. Meanwhile, a lot of sparks fly between Nate and Dominika, first in Moscow, then in Helsinki, and we want to say, “The hell with realism, give us an impossible romance” (but please steer clear of silliness like the Brad-and-Angelina “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” movie or “Spy vs. Spy” cartoon plots).

If you’ve had your fill of espionage tales where the bad guys being sought are traitors for the Soviets or Russian within NATO countries, here is your chance to view the life of agents serving as of moles for the West. It was fitting for Putin to make cameo appearances considering his past as a KGB director. Many other reviewers have pointed out Mathews flaw in endowing Dominaka with the synesthetic superpower of being able to read people’s emotional states as auras of color. Fortunately, I found I could take it in stride as a sort of literary means to revealing hidden motivations of characters on the stage. Another unnecessary quirk is putting recipes for dishes eaten by the characters in the empty spaces at the end of many chapters. Maybe the device is the author’s way of winking at us and turning the great Game into a game. Regardless, the plane it puts the reader on acts to diffuse or defuse any taut suspense built up in the reader at that point.

This novel was like water in the desert for me in my quest for a superior espionage tale. In the 80s I had the epiphany of a run of compelling and depressingly realistic reads on the hidden Cold War at the hands of Deighton and le Carre. Since that time the work of Alan Furst, David Downing, and Barry Eisler have brought levels of satisfaction that almost reach such champions on my pleasure meter (books by W.E.B. Griffin, Charles McGarry, and Robert Goddard just an occasional twinge on the needle; Silva yet untried). On the side in the ensuing decades, was the thousands of hours I spend pursuing the more pyrotechnical thrillers involving covert ops. What a litany (Ludlum, Forsyth, Clancy, DeMille, Flynn, Baldacci, Coonts, Vince Flynn. Ted Bell, Alex Berensen, Brent Ghelfi), all of which was entertaining but missing that extra heft I got from this less action-packed story in the realm of elucidating paradoxes in human nature and insights into the Sisyphian nature of the intelligence enterprise.


message 2: by [deleted user] (new)

I loved this book! I love your review and I'm so glad you enjoyed it. I've read the second in the trilogy and still have the third to read.


message 3: by Michael (new)

Michael (mike999) | 569 comments Good to know there are more on tap for me.


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