Red Sparrow (Dominika Egorova 1) Paperback – 22 Feb 2018
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About the Author
Jason Matthews retired after 33 years in the CIA's Directorate of Operations as a clandestine operations officer and senior manager. Matthews lives with his wife Suzanne, herself a retired 34-year veteran of the CIA, in Rancho Mirage, California. Treason is his first novel.
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So, to the thriller. Starting with a very strong perspective on our Russian we see her grow into a role as an intelligence agent, mainly due to her incredible ability to read people and their emotions. She is caught up in Russian politics and then the dark space of spying, honey traps and espionage. The story them takes a direction towards US and Russian mole hunts, very much an intelligence game of chess and out young lady and a young American agent also have key parts to play in that game of deception. So, as a spy story it felt well written, realistic and intelligent with plenty to keep you interested throughout.
This would have been a four star read had it not been for…the recipes. For some utterly bizarre reason the author decided to introduce lots of food into the story and then finish the chapter with the recipe. So in the narrative, you may find a character eating a sandwich and you know that come the end of the chapter you will know more than you ever wanted to about how to make that sandwich. In my humble opinion this was a terrible idea and an utter distraction to the story. When it first occurred I was desperately trying to work out the context with the story and then it appears time and time again and you realise it is just the author having fun. The crime here is that it takes you out of ’the zone’ where you are immersed in a story and the characters. Utterly daft self-indulgence that takes a star off for me.
I must admit that I hadn’t reflected much on the Cold War. Like most people, I assumed it was over. Jason Matthews reminds us that there is a new Cold War going on. The terms may have subtly changed, but Russia and its figurehead in Putin are still in business playing the game. It is still all about power play and recruiting assets to uncover what the other side is doing. Technology has made this even more intense. As the books progress, we see the nature of Russia with its extremes in poverty and rich, corrupt government officials together with high profile villains. I am pretty sure these books will be banned in Russia, with their anti Putin stance. At times, this felt like a piece of American propaganda, without the nuances. The author could have worked a little harder to blur the black and white dichotomy. After all, both sides will do anything to get to their goals.
Red Sparrow introduces Dominika and Nate, the CIA asset and her handler. Dominika has the most intriguing background, moving from ballerina to Sparrow to US asset. She is a gutsy brave woman, whose vibrancy and intelligence leap off the page. Dominika was a talented ballerina, who lost her career due to injury. She also has the most peculiar gift of being able to read moods and people by colour. She has synesthesia. She is left without an income and is forced to train as a Sparrow, by her uncle. Sparrows are trained in sexual espionage, to seduce and entrap male and female victims. They ensure assets cannot wriggle out of agreements to spy.
Nate, also known as Nathaniel Nash, works for the CIA. He is down to earth and solid. We first meet him in Russia, where his ability to speak fluent Russian and keep calm in a crisis is put to the test. In Russia, things go terribly wrong for Nash and MARBLE, his VIP asset. Nate ends up working in Helsinki with a stain on his perfect record. This puts Nate in the path of the Sparrow, Dominika. The Russians want to compromise Nate. Dominika and Nate meet, with Dominika trying to weave a Sparrow sexual spell over Nash. Things do not go to plan. The pair find they like each other. Sparks fly. They cannot help themselves. They break the rules. They have sex. They fall in love. And Nate recruits Dominika for the US, code name DIVA.
The rest of the book sees DIVA settle into her role, as the perfect modern spy. We follow the hunt for the mole in Washington and the escalating drama with Marble, the CIA asset in Russia. Double agents are everywhere. There is a fabulous climate of distrust and edgy uncertainty. We see the camaraderie in the CIA camp with Nate, Gable and Forsyth, which is rather sweet. There are plenty of thrilling and heart stopping moments, where we fear for Dominika and Nate. The pace is terrific and the action spot on. I didn’t want it to end. I didn’t even mind the food recipes at the end of each chapter. They made me feel hungry.
Fans of spy thriller should not miss this trilogy. The Red Sparrow is simply the best, combining intrigue with romance! Go and feast yourselves on one superb read.
We first meet CIA agent Nate Nash in Moscow, clandestinely meeting with his asset, code-named MARBLE. The Russians are aware that a mole exists, but have no clue - so far. The meeting seems to go as normal, then mere chance thrusts them both into danger. The manhunt is on – and Nash is identified by the Russians as a foreign agent. The fact that he evaded the hunters is good news, but the bad news is that his asset, a major general in the SVR, the successor to the KGB’s First Chief Directorate, the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service, is at risk if Nash arranges to handle him further.
At about the same time, Dominika is a new member of the SVR, her recruitment engineered by her uncle, Vanya Egorov. Her career leads her to the Sparrow school, where she learns the techniques of seduction, then suborning targets by blackmail. Dominika’s background is veined with tragedy, her parents’ and her aspirations smothered by the system. Strangely, she is able to view coloured auras around people’s heads, signifying their moods, but keeps this arcane knowledge to herself. It comes in handy when dealing with conspirators, and even her uncle. Considering the controversial lineage of the Kirlian imagery of the 1960s-1970s, this is not too far-fetched, perhaps! Certainly, Dominika is depicted as a strong, sympathetic and convincing character.
Nash is redirected to Helsinki. His new boss is Forsyth, a no-nonsense kind of guy, aided by Gable, a quick-talking, apparently glib yet cunning agent, very much in the mould of Tom Arnold’s character Albert Gibson in True Lies, providing light relief.
Before long, Dominika is tasked with going there to ferret out any clues to the mole suspected to exist in the SVR. A fascinating cat-and-mouse affair begins between the attractive pair, each planning to recruit the other.
Disaster strikes and almost at the point where Nate and Dominika become lovers, they are brutally parted.
Dwelling in the shadows is Sergey Matorin, a ‘mechanic’, an executioner of the Russian secret service. This is a dark, unpleasant creation, his deadly cruelty given release in Afghanistan.
Matthews has imbued the story with authentic settings and knowledge about the Russian system and psyche. There are tense, suspenseful moments, and a few brutal interludes, and throughout there’s the constant stench of betrayal hovering. Even though it has 546 pages, it’s a fast read, because you become involved with the characters and want to know how their stories are resolved. If you like espionage books, then Red Sparrow should greatly satisfy, though I cannot fathom why he has inserted recipes at the end of each chapter, admittedly relevant to the food eaten in that chapter; I got to the point where I stopped reading them as they affected the narrative flow!
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