Review of Red Sparrow by Jason Matthews

August 17, 2013
Filed under: Reviews 

SFFaudio Review

Red Sparrow by Jason MatthewsRed Sparrow
By Jason Matthews; Narrated by Jeremy Bobb
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Audio
Publication Date: June 2013[UNABRIDGED] – 18 hours

Themes: / thriller /  spies / secret agents / Russia / sexpionage /

Publisher summary:

In present-day Russia, ruled by blue-eyed, unblinking President Vladimir Putin, Russian intelligence officer Dominika Egorova struggles to survive in the post-Soviet intelligence jungle. Ordered against her will to become a “Sparrow,” a trained seductress, Dominika is assigned to operate against Nathaniel Nash, a young CIA officer who handles the Agency’s most important Russian mole.

Spies have long relied on the “honey trap,” whereby vulnerable men and women are intimately compromised. Dominika learns these techniques of “sexpionage” in Russia’s secret “Sparrow School,” hidden outside of Moscow. As the action careens between Russia, Finland, Greece, Italy, and the United States, Dominika and Nate soon collide in a duel of wills, tradecraft, and—inevitably—forbidden passion that threatens not just their lives but those of others as well. As secret allegiances are made and broken, Dominika and Nate’s game reaches a deadly crossroads. Soon one of them begins a dangerous double existence in a life-and-death operation that consumes intelligence agencies from Moscow to Washington, DC.

Page by page, veteran CIA officer Jason Matthews’s Red Sparrow delights and terrifies and fascinates, all while delivering an unforgettable cast, from a sadistic Spetsnaz “mechanic” who carries out Putin’s murderous schemes to the weary CIA Station Chief who resists Washington “cake-eaters” to MARBLE, the priceless Russian mole. Packed with insider detail and written with brio, this tour-de-force novel brims with Matthews’s life experience, including his knowledge of espionage, counterintelligence, surveillance tradecraft, spy recruitment, cyber-warfare, the Russian use of “spy dust,” and covert communications. Brilliantly composed and elegantly constructed, Red Sparrow is a masterful spy tale lifted from the dossiers of intelligence agencies on both sides of the Atlantic. Authentic, tense, and entertaining, this novel introduces Jason Matthews as a major new American talent.

When Jason Matthews retired from the CIA, he was able to provide the spy-thriller genre with a book that probably rings truer than most for how things actually work. I have to think that the main character, Nate Nash, is based either on Matthews himself or on someone he was close to.

Red Sparrow is a fairly typical spy-thriller. It opens with the main character, Nate, meeting one of his agents inside Russia, Marble. Nate is a CIA operative, a handler, of foreign spies. Marble is a high-ranking member of the Russian equivalent who is now playing for the Americans. As with most novels in this genre, the book starts with some excitement, as Nate is almost caught in his meeting with Marble.

From there, the story takes on the familiar aspects of showing both sides of the world, spy vs. spy. The Russians embody “Soviet Russia.” I’m not sure how much of that is real today, if many high-ranking officials (especially in their equivalent of the CIA/spy services) still think like “Soviets,” that there is a cold war ongoing…regardless, that’s the way they’re painted in this modern-day book. The Russians have realized that there is a mole within their organization and so develop the talented ballerina-turned-spy Dominika into a the one who will infiltrate the American intelligence community and unmask the mole. Her mission is to seduce Nate, to basically turn him into a mole for the Russians.

The entire book is fairly predictable. Right at the start of the book, once Dominika was introduced, it became obvious what would happen between her and Nate. From there, as the story evolved, even if it wasn’t obvious how they would get to the ending, it was pretty easy to tell what would happen next. But that’s not really a bad thing; that happens in almost every spy novel. Heck, if they told us how they really do things, they’d probably have to kill us….or develop some Men In Black-type flash-thing to wipe our memories of it all. Even though the story is predictable, the reader is drawn in through the characters, who are all believable. Most readers can probably empathize with Nate’s and Dominika’s feelings, can see how they feel loyalty to their countries and where that loyalty can be misused. As Marble’s story unfolds, one can see why he turned into a mole for the American spy service–and how he was able to carry out that role for such a long time. Even the Russian spy service members’ motivations can be seen and understood, even if the ideals seem somewhat outdated. Who’s to say Putin isn’t really trying to re-wage the cold war?

I enjoyed this book for what it was, a spy-thriller book that made me want to know what was going to happen to the characters. I found myself making excuses to listen so that I could see just how the next scenes would unfold, how the characters got from point A to B to C. Matthews also puts in something unique at the end of each chapter, a rough recipe for a food item that was mentioned in the chapter. I almost want to get the book in print so that I can try to make some of the dishes. I suspect that in his duties as a member of the CIA, Matthews may have been able to travel a bit and wanted to share some of his food experiences in an unconventional way. All in all, while not deep, the book was enjoyable to read, to experience along with the characters.

I liked listening to this book, though I admit I had one small problem, and that problem may be just showing my ignorance. Jeremy Bobb’s narration is fine–if a little flat. He reads the book, he doesn’t try to add too much emotion to any character. But many of the characters are Russian…and have Russian names. It took me about half the book to figure out the difference between Dominika’s uncle and the Russian spy who seems to order most of the wetwork. The names, to my ear that’s used to listening for names like Smith and Jones, were too similar-sounding for me to keep straight. First names were much easier.

All in all, if you like spy novels, you’ll probably like this book. You’ll probably like it even more if you also like descriptions of food. I wonder if spies commonly meet in restaurants!

Posted by terpkristin.

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