Red Sparrow (2013) – Jason Matthews

Title:Red Sparrow
Author:Jason Matthews
Publisher:Simon & Schuster
Date of publication:2013
Star Rating:⭐⭐⭐

Having never read a ‘spy novel’ before I was not sure what to expect, and honestly Red Sparrow did not disappoint (despite not expecting anything). It follows the traditional themes of intrigue and espionage, and includes a massive dose of sex appeal and a sprinkling of cooking (yes I said cooking), creating a narrative that if anything, questions the moral ambiguity of ‘the spy’ and the ‘spy narrative’.

Dominika Egorova was once a prima ballerina, and after an injury left her with a noticeable limp and a mother to take care of, she goes in search of some help in the form of her uncle, Vanya Egorov of the SVR. His response to Dominika’s plight is to offer her a job in Russian intelligence, and before long she is being sent to the notorious ‘Sparrow School’ to learn the art of ‘sexpionage’ and seduction. Dominika does not do any of this willingly, and yet she seems to have an incredible knack for the job. She also has the unique ability to ‘read’ people. Diagnosed at a young age with ‘synesthesia’, which allows her to ‘see’ music, Dominika is also able to look directly at another human being and see ‘colours’. The colours she sees help her to distinguish the good from the bad, and though she keeps it a secret, it is no secret that the young Russian has incredible instincts. Despite her inexperience she rises through the ranks, and receives assignments that become progressively more and more dangerous.

Nathaniel Nash is a CIA operative who has had the prestigious role of handling the most important and elusive Russian mole, code-name MARBLE, for a number of years. Working in Helsinki, and taking instructions from superiors Gable and Forsyth of the CIA, Nash has been given another assignment. He is to meet and recruit a young Russian woman working for the SVR, whom he initially believes to be simply there on a very basic level. Neither is aware that they are in fact ‘working’ each other. Nate and Dominika meet, and it is not long before the two agents cannot seem to keep their hands off of each other.

Dominika, whose traumatic experience during her first assignment as a ‘Sparrow’ and the lack of loyalty she feels towards her uncle, who has continued to hold his niece at ransom, makes the dangerous decision to become a ‘double agent’.

Nate and Dominika’s passionate affair is infused with fear, paranoia and guilt. So many games are being played all at once, and it makes one feel quite breathless to keep track of their tactics and the skills required to become invisible in both crowded and empty rooms. As the recruitment operations commence, and the two agents wine and dine in decadent restaurants, and out-of-the-way cafes, it is thrilling to witness both their passion for each other, and for their craft. This potentially fatal attraction sways dangerously between the very visible politics of a soviet union, and the assassins that lurk in the shadows.

The author’s skills as a writer are almost as masterful as his knowledge of security intelligence. Before he passed away this year, Jason Matthews was a retired officer in the CIA’s former Operations Directorate who was responsible for collecting national security intelligence for his country for over thirty years. His expert knowledge is a given, but his prose is a revelation. Red Sparrow is decadently atmospheric. The writing is the perfect blend of specialist jargon, wit and sharp observations that mix well with the adrenaline-pumping action and thrilling dialogue. The novel is set in Russia mostly (which accounts for the liberal lashings of Russian throughout), but also settles in Italy, Greece and the United States.

It is a refreshingly cosmopolitan take on the conventional spy novel, made even more authentic and unique with it’s mouthwatering recipes for traditional Russian dishes served at the end of every chapter. Dominika and Nate are superb protagonists who have dared to fall in love in the very middle of a war, and it is both terrifying and thrilling to watch them play an incredibly dangerous game in the middle of a battle ground.

2 thoughts on “Red Sparrow (2013) – Jason Matthews”

    • Hi Bill,
      I think if you’re a fan of spy novels and thrillers this one is a ‘must-read’. Its actually a trilogy too!


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