By Heidi Simmons
Red Sparrow

by Jason Matthews


The world is going crazy. Relationships between United States’ allies and enemies appear to be getting more intense and unpleasant. It is hard for regular citizens to know just what governments are doing behind the scenes to keep the peace. If indeed that is the goal. In Jason Matthew’s novel Red Sparrow (Scribner, 435 pages), Russian and American spies try to get the upper hand in an endless game of spy craft.

The story begins in the side streets of Moscow as CIA case officer Nathaniel Nash works the area to flush out and lose Russian surveillance teams in order to safely meet his high level “asset,” Marble – a foreign intelligence officer and Kremlin spy. After a short exchange, Marble and Nate are spotted and pursued. They barely get away in the cold dark city.

The Russian and American spy teams are both pissed at the close encounter. The Russians know they have an insider — a mole — and they nearly had him in their grasp. They know about the American handler, Nate, and desperately want his ass as well.

Meanwhile, the Americans reprimand Nate for the near loss of their most important and longest standing Russian agent. With Nate’s cover blown, he is at risk and must be reassigned. It is a career setback for Nate.

As the Russians decide how to uncover the mole, they recruit Dominika Egorova a beautiful new spy academy graduate. The young woman was top in her class. She also trained as a Sparrow – one who is accomplished in the art of sexual seduction. Dominika comes from a good family with important government ties. She was a ballerina before her top competitor deliberately broke her leg thus destroying any hope of a career.

To find out who the Russian traitor is, Dominika is assigned to recruit and seduce Nate. The two meet in Helsinki, each working the other. Abused, used and disrespected by her Russian compatriots, Dominika comes to appreciate the straightforward relationship she builds with Nate. They soon become friends and she decides to work for the Americans as a double agent.

Inevitably, Nate and Dominika become lovers, which only complicates matters. In the meantime, Marble wants out of the spy biz. He’s old and tired and knows his days are numbered. With the CIA’s help, Marble plans his own demise so Dominika can take his place as a high-ranking Russian insider devoid of suspicion.

While in the field, Dominika has made a name for herself at the Kremlin. Even President Putin knows about her loyalty and good work. After a miss-step, the Russians torture Dominika for weeks in a vain attempt to get her to confess. She survives the brutality at the hand of her own people, but now she hates those in power more than ever.

At the same time, both countries search for high-level spies within their borders. Eventually, everything comes to a head and a dangerous plan is devised. Each party — Russian and American — must make a sacrifice to get what they want. For Dominika and Nate, both loyal citizens of their respective countries, their work – the art of spy craft — is personal and they will do whatever it takes to maintain their integrity.

Red Sparrow is a spy thriller that engages the reader with both American and Russian espionage. Author Matthews reveals the spying similarities and differences between Russia and America. The romantic relationship between Nate and Dominika entangles their personal lives and belief systems making the novel a compelling tale of just what goes on in the intense and complicated world of intelligence gathering.

Matthews is a retired veteran of the CIA. Both he and his wife had careers in the spy business and raised their children overseas. (Read more about Matthews in my article at Columns, Book Review Lunch With A Spy Mar. 26 ‘14.) His omniscient voice in the novel reeks of insider knowledge.

Most interesting is the close up look at Putin’s Russia. Red Sparrow features Putin as a character, and yes he is that same soulless guy we see on TV posing shirtless. Putin is a man who sends sadistic hit men to kill those who would embarrass him and his administration. He is especially feared and hated by those who work with him. Putin is ruthless, egotistical and dangerous. As with most tyrannical governments, we root for the people and detest their authoritarian leadership.

This is Matthews’ first novel and he writes like a pro! He moves the story along and weaves a provocative tale hopping between a Russian and American point of view. This book is a trip to Moscow, Helsinki, Greece and Rome. In every chapter, someone is eating at a local restaurant where the reader gets a taste of the food. (Matthews even includes a brief recipe at the end of every chapter.) He uses humor and action to engage the reader without over writing or under telling. He skillfully drops us into a grimy and intense world. Like a good case officer should, and as an author, he connects the dots and ties up all the loose ends.

Dominika is a complicated character. She can read auras. She loves her country and loathes corruption. She wants respect and freedom for herself and her people. As a double agent, she faces certain death if caught. The question is: Can working with the Americans help her and her country?

Red Sparrow is entertaining as well as insightful and timely. Matthews has hinted that Dominika may continue in a sequel. It would be a shame not to see how this difficult relationship with the West will work for her. After all world peace is at stake.

Jason Matthews will be speaking at the Rancho Mirage Writers Festival in January.