Fortunately I saw the film first. I rated the film as excellent but the book is far better. Matthews must have been paid an awful lot of money for film rights as there are significant U turns in both the characterisation and plotting. Does it matter? Films after all are a summary. They aren’t slavish replications and the film (Red Sparrow), with the impeccable Jennifer Lawrence, is clearly the first of a series.
Matthews is a career CIA officer. The novel emits the sulphur of authenticity from both sides of the continuing Cold War. It’s a home crowd novel with implausibly good CIA officers battling against SVR Russian counterparts. Putin is named and shamed but US presidents (Bush Jr ? Obama?) aren’t, which is indicative of Matthew’s biases. Needless to relate 3rd country torture centres aren’t mentioned nor waterboarding nor CIA rendition flights. But this merely reminds the reader that this is a novel not a piece of history.
Anyone believing the Cold War had finished with the demise of the Soviet Union is deluded as the attempted assassinations in Salisbury (UK) demonstrate. Dominika Egorova, an ex-ballerina and niece of SVR deputy director Vanya becomes a spy. She’s very bright and steely. Graduating from a ‘whore’ SVR school for sexpionage Dominika operates far beyond her pay grade. Being the niece of the ironically named Uncle Vanya (shades of Checkov?) is the background noise that tames too much criticism when she errs (though that didn’t save her from a gruelling interrogation). The search for a CIA mole in the SVR is the principal theme and is brilliantly well done.
The second book in the Red Sparrow trilogy is Palace of Treason. The same principals are in place in this book. Dominika Egorova is now a captain in the SVR and her rapid promotion is resented by her head of department Zyuganov. This is extremely dangerous because he is an unreconstructed Stalinist torturer. Dominika will find this out with assassination attempts orchestrated by Zyuganov. Our heroine is however too many for them and using outstanding (and implausible) skills more than survives.
The centre of the book is the Iranian nuclear industry and the dangers that this poses to both the USA and Israel. Dominika is a US double agent because of her on-going but intermittent love affair with Nate. Her information is vital to the USAs incredible powers, which thwart the Iranians in a dramatic manner. So far so Cold War thriller.
Jason Matthews then drops into an anti-Putin polemic. Dominika comments on the excellent meal they’re eating.
“In Russia the only people who eat like this are the siloviki, the fat cats licking their paws and purring when our dear president scratches them behind the ears,” she said. They are in their dachas and villas and seaside resorts- do you know about Putin’s palace in Praskoveeks on the Black Sea? He stole hospital funds to pay build it.”
Perhaps this gung-ho nationalism is felt to weaken the book as it is now priced at 99p on Kindle; until Jennifer Lawrence’s money-making wand appears. I remain a fan but it would have been nicer without the John Wayne narrative
Why you should buy this book: It’s a pulsating thriller
Why you shouldn’t buy this book: If you’ve seen the film it might come as a shock.