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Monday, 20 June 2016

Book review - Red Sparrow

The Cold War isn’t dead and buried, it’s still with us, very much so, if Jason Matthews’ debut thriller Red Sparrow (2013) is to be believed. And since Matthews is a retired Operations Executive of the CIA, the tradecraft and information letter-drops suggest authenticity. Mr Putin may even have avidly read a translation, particularly as he figures in the story. As an ops officer observed, Putin’s intent on putting together USSR Mk 2, and he will do it by any means possible, probably creating instability in the West and Europe in particular. There’s a deep psychological need to create a new, feared Russian Empire.

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, noting that my spy heroine happens to be psychic!

Certainly, Dominika is depicted as a strong, sympathetic and convincing character.

Nash is redirected to Helsinki. His 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 to Finland 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.

Soon, I expect to be reading the sequel Palace of Treason.

Footnote: 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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