- Series: The Red Sparrow Trilogy (Book 1)
- Hardcover: 448 pages
- Publisher: Scribner; First Edition edition (June 4, 2013)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 1476706123
- ISBN-13: 978-1476706122
- Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.2 x 9 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 3,162 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #58,041 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Red Sparrow: A Novel (The Red Sparrow Trilogy) Hardcover – June 4, 2013
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Doug Stanton on Red Sparrow by Jason Matthews
Doug Stanton is a teacher, lecturer, and author of the New York Times bestsellers In Harm’s Way and Horse Soldiers. His writing has appeared in Esquire, The New York Times, The New York Times Book Review, TIME, the Washington Post, Men’s Journal, Outside, The Daily Beast/Newsweek. Stanton has appeared multiple times on the Today Show, CNN, Imus In The Morning, Discovery, A&E, Fox News, NPR, MSNBC’s Morning Joe, and NBC Nightly News. Horse Soldiers is in development as a movie by Jerry Bruckheimer Films. Stanton reads and lectures nationally to business, civic groups, libraries, writing & book clubs, and universities, including the United States Air Force Academy, University of Michigan, and The Union League Club. Stanton attended Interlochen Arts Academy, Hampshire College, and received an MFA from the Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa, where he graduated with coursework in both fiction and poetry workshops. He founded the National Writers Series, a book festival; and the Front Street Writers Studio, a free writing workshop for public high school students.
The spy-thriller is back in full force thanks to newcomer and CIA insider Jason Matthews.
Set in unnervingly accurate present-day Russia, where Putin’s influence is omnipresent, Red Sparrow follows two intelligence officers who are targeted against each other: Nate Nash, a young, ambitious, sometimes naive CIA officer, and Dominika Egorova, a willful, beautiful Russian ballerina turned spy due to unfortunate circumstances. When we first meet Nate he is beginning the most important job of his fledgling career—handling MARBLE, a high-ranking Russian intelligence officer who is giving information to the Americans, largely considered to be the CIA’s most valuable asset—while Dominika’s first foray in the field is off to a more tenuous start. After being injured and thus forced to leave her beloved ballet, her uncle, a high ranking state intelligence official lures her in, eventually forcing her to attend “Sparrow School” to train as an espionage courtesan. After successfully finishing her training, Dominika is sent to Helsinki where the young Nate has taken up residence after a near disaster in Moscow. The Russians had discovered that he was gaining inside information, tipping them off to the existence of a high-level mole. Dominika is charged with the task of discovering the mole’s identity by getting close to Nash—a delectable honey trap for the brash American. What begins as a relatively simple assignment leads to a development of fatal double lives, dangerous spy games, and treacherous secrets. As the two face-off, tentatively making moves, Dominika begins to learn the true nature of those who control her, and suddenly Nate and the people he works for begin to look more and more attractive. Disappointed and humiliated by her handlers, and with nowhere to turn, Dominika is recruited by Nate (or is she?). Against the rules, the two fall in and out of bed in various cities, and come close to falling dangerously in love. They struggle mightily to trust each other, and to trust themselves.
I read till 11 and woke up at 5 a.m. three days in a row to finish this book as fast as I possibly could. If it doesn't supplant The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo as the next mammoth read, and if it doesn't take its place alongside le Carre's The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, the love of literature and jaw-dropping thrills really is dead. When I finished the book the day was just dawning, as it always is in this novel, only in the novel the fated characters, filled with melancholy, romance, venom, and belly-aching humor (this book can be laugh out loud funny), are usually eating well and wondering when it'll be lights out for them. Jason Matthews has "reported" this book for 30 years, working it all out in the "real world," and one wonders who he is, mostly: the young, "naive" Nate Nash; the knock-out, petulant heroine Dominika, whom Quentin Tarantino and Doctor Zhivago both might've loved; or the Gus Grissom-like Gable, a CIA chief who dispenses life-lessons to the young Nate—a muscled hen clucking and stirring a bubbling sauce over a stove. There is not a false note in the amazing ventriloquisms that are the conjurer's art we call literature. There are sentences as exciting to read as Eliot's "The Wasteland" (cf. the description of a moist, pale toadie scuttling along a hall; downright spooky, an image I cannot get rid of); or the majestic, floor-board creaking opening of Cormac McCarthy's All The Pretty Horses. The granular sweep of the authorial vision is a telescope still warm from Tolstoy's hands. There's a scene in here better by ten than Bogart looking down at Ingrid. I learned as much about the former Soviets and the new Russians, and our U.S. of A., as I have ever gleaned from the hardest working journalists writing today. Halfway through, I was afraid Vladimir Putin would find out I was reading Red Sparrow and have me arrested. With its ripped-from-the headlines appeal, real life spy craft details, and thrilling international action that takes us to Helsinki, Moscow, Athens, Rome, and Washington, D.C., I have to say that I have not read a more exciting, gripping novel in a long time. And the best part is this: the ending of this novel makes it clear that this isn’t the last we’ll be hearing from Jason Matthews.
*Starred Review* Many spy novelists, including Ian Fleming and John le Carré, actually worked as intelligence agents. Add to that list Jason Matthews, whose 33 years as a CIA field operative enriches his first novel with startling verisimilitude, from griping about meddling, deskbound bureaucrats at Langley to the flat statement that Russia’s SVR, successor to the KGB, sees the Cold War as alive and well, and that in Putin’s Russia, “nothing has changed since Stalin.” Perhaps this is novelistic license, but it feels genuine. That sense of authenticity, along with vividly drawn characters, much detail about tradecraft, and an appropriately convoluted plot that centers on moles in both the SVR and the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence make this a compelling and propulsive tale of spy-versus-spy. Matthews’ characters are variously fascinating, eccentric, and truly odious, including a beautiful Russian woman with the gift of synesthesia, forced into “sparrow school” to learn espionage through seduction; a brilliant and flamboyantly odd head of CIA counterintelligence; a “poisonous” dwarf whose reveries always return to torture and murder during Russia’s Afghanistan debacle; and many more. Locales including Moscow, Helsinki, Rome, and Athens seem knowingly evoked, and each brief chapter concludes with a recipe for some food a character has just eaten. Red Sparrow is greater than the sum of its fine parts. Espionage aficionados will love this one. --Thomas Gaughan
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Authentic detail of espionage
Red Sparrow is not a conventional spy story. True enough, it's well-written, ingeniously plotted, and endlessly suspenseful. On that account alone, fans of John le Carré, Joseph Kanon, or Alan Furst should appreciate it. But the book rises above the level of the genre because the author has infused it with detailed, intimate knowledge of authentic espionage tradecraft employed both by the CIA and by Russia's Foreign Intelligence Service, the SVR. Red Sparrow also reveals a great deal about the SVR's structure and practices. I was so taken aback by the level of detail that I checked a number of details at random; they all proved accurate. I can easily imagine this novel being passed around at the CIA training center known as the Farm as a fictionalized (if no doubt exaggerated) account of what an officer might encounter in the field.
Two central characters in a cat-and-cat game
The Red Sparrow of the title is Dominika Egorova, a niece of the First Deputy Director of the SVR. When an injury ends her promising career in the ballet, her uncle presses her into the intelligence service, sending her first to the standard officer training and then to "Sparrow School," where she is taught seduce enemy agents. Her assignment is to entrap and recruit Nathaniel Nash, the young CIA officer who is known to be the handler of MARBLE, a high-level mole in the SVR. "Nate was one of a small group of CIA 'internal ops' officers trained to operate under surveillance on the opposition's home ground." His assignment is to recruit her once she has managed to enter his life. The result can't be described as a cat-and-mouse game. It's a cat-and-cat game, and it's fascinating.
The supporting cast on the American side includes a pair of veteran CIA officers who assist and guide Nate as he maneuvers through his relationship with Dominika. There are also a sociopathic US Senator and a number of FBI agents who wander in and out of the background, all of them coming across as incompetent. (This no doubt reflects the ages-old suspicion between the CIA and the FBI.) On the Russian side, the leading characters include Dominika's uncle and several members of his staff at the SVR. One key figure there is a "poisonous dwarf" who serves as his counterintelligence chief. (He appears to be modeled on the five-foot-tall Nikolai Yezhov, a sadistic murderer who served for a year as head of Stalin's secret police. He was known as "The Poison Dwarf.") Vladimir Putin himself makes several cameo appearances.
About the author
Author Jason Matthews' official bio on his publisher's web site is worth quoting at length: "Jason Matthews is a retired officer of the CIA’s Operations Directorate. Over a thirty-three-year career he served in multiple overseas locations and engaged in clandestine collection of national security intelligence, specializing in denied-area operations. Matthews conducted recruitment operations against Soviet–East European, East Asian, Middle Eastern, and Caribbean targets. As Chief in various CIA Stations, he collaborated with foreign partners in counterproliferation and counterterrorism operations." In other words, it should be no surprise that Jason Matthews could write a book that exhibits authentic espionage tradecraft. Red Sparrow is the first novel in a trilogy of the same name.
Matthews’ facility with language is amazing and precise. His writing paints images rich in color and emotion. The world-building is excellent.
The humor. Hero Nate Nash has two bosses, Marty Gable and Tom Forsythe. Gable’s sarcastic remarks, belied by his supportive actions, are truly funny. Heroine Dominika Egarova also thinks of her cruel superiors in hilariously rude terms. And the Sparrow School of seductive spycraft they blackmail her into attending (“training for ‘prostitutkas’, not staff officers,” she protests) teaches a list of techniques expressed in amusing metaphorical terms.
The characters are extremely well developed. There are many, but I never got confused because each has a distinct personality.
Complex plotting. Matthews skillfully conveys the conflict that arises when those who give orders have different priorities than those who put their lives on the line. The intriguing plot includes plenty of violence, tricky spycraft, and suspense.
I felt neutral about:
Nate and Dominika’s relationship. As they are mostly separated by thousands of miles, disparate governments, and secrecy, it’s minor.
The short recipes at chapter ends. I skipped over them.
While not exactly abrupt, the ending is an obvious segue into the second novel, but getting there was such a pleasure, I wasn’t upset.