Book Review: "Red Sparrow" by Jason Matthews (2013)
James C. Rocks
"Red Sparrow" is the first book written by ex-Central Intelligence Agency operative, Jason Matthews who, I am told, is married to someone who is also an ex-operative. It is the first of a trilogy featuring the beautiful Russian ex-ballerina and spy, Dominika Egorov, detailing her relationship with American operative, Nathaniel Nash or "Nate". The book was made into a film of the same name released in 2018, it starred Jennifer Lawrence and Joel Edgerton however this review concerns the book (the kindle edition to be precise). "Red Sparrow" is a classic spy yarn with authentic seeming tradecraft set against a continuation of the cold war which has continued, "business as usual" into the Putin era, a good old-fashioned spy yarn based, presumably, on the author's experience as a CIA operative. It is his attention to detail, his quirky use of language (including Russian) that raises this book above the bar. With a scope ranging across Russia, Sweden and the US, the book has a lot of fast paced action, from characters on foot trying to avoid roving patrols to car tails and chases. The book started slowly, quite difficult to get into, with the author's style hard to adapt to but, by a third of the way in, I was very glad I stuck it out. Although I was able to guess some of upcoming twists, I was generally only able to do so close to when they happened and, in general, the suspense in the book was good. There was a significant amount of violence in the book most notably when a particular Russian assassin is involved. The romance between the two lead characters, Egorov and Nash, as well as the associated sex scenes, was well handled.
Nate Nash is a young, keen CIA operative working out of the US embassy in Moscow. He is idealistic, ambitious, calm in a crisis and fluent in Russian. He handles the Russian double agent, MARBLE, an asset who is high in the Russian Foreign Services, trying to keep him secret as he supplies information to the CIA. Nash's story starts in Moscow where we meet Nate and MARBLE. The Russians are aware that they have a mole but have yet to identify them so they set a trap is set from which Nash and MARBLE narrowly escape but Nash gets identified as a foreign agent. As a consequence of the following shitstorm, Nash is posted to a remote CIA office in Helsinki where he meets his new no-nonsense boss, Forsyth, and his quick-witted and sarcastic colleague, Gable. It is in Helsinki, that Nash meets Egorov, someone they hope to make their asset and to whom they give the code name DIVA. Egorov, a beautiful ex-ballerina with a tragic background, is a synesthete; she sees the moods of others as coloured auras. Vibrant, sultry and independent by nature she is forced into a world where she becomes hard, unflinching and increasingly alone. Egorov is angry, resentful and conflicted, she feels exploited but she still loves her country especially when "Uncle Vanya" enrols her in the Russian Foreign Services. Vanya gets her sent to "Sparrow School" where she is trained in the arts of seduction and blackmail but, "graduating" early, she is given her first mission, to unmask MARBLE. Sent to Helsinki, Egorov makes an unwilling spy but her synaesthesia is her big advantage. In Helsinki she meets Nate Nash and the two engage in a cat and mouse game with each trying to make the other an asset, both competing with each other to find their respective moles, but the ultimately the two realise that what they really want is each other and they fall into an affair. The affair is brutally ended and the lovers are parted. I enjoyed reading "Red Sparrow". It's a well plotted espionage thriller even if it's somewhat black and white, the US side mainly featuring flawed good guys, the Russian side featuring flawed baddies that seem almost set up to counterpoint the Americans. "Red Sparrow" is a classic spy novel with authentic seeming tradecraft set in the Putin era, a continuation of the cold war, when it's "business as usual". The descriptions of the American and Russian agencies, the politics behind them, feel realistically paranoid with the intrigue and motivations that make those organisations what they are. Matthews has an interesting writing style, dropping Russian language translations and culture references where appropriate and, in an interesting twist, he ends each chapter with a recipe relevant to the chapter just completed. The recipes either work for you or they don't; I rather liked them, they amused me and added to book's authenticity ... to those who disliked them, all I can say is, they are easy enough to glance at or ignore. "Red Sparrow" is a well-told story, with honesty and depth, a page turner with a lot of twists and turns that was oftentimes difficult to put down. There were parts that I didn't want to read past because I had come to care about the primary character and, there were times when it was only that I knew Matthews had written two sequels told me she would survive. At nearly 450 pages, the book is long and takes some time to read and, initially hard going, it got easier the further I got in and by a third of the book I was enjoying every moment. In that respect it's not much different to Andy Weir's, "The Martian". That I liked the book is fairly clear since I've already purchased the sequels, "Palace of Treason" and "The Kremlin's Candidate".