Red Sparrow by Jason Matthews (#bookreview)

Like the coldest, most diligent of intelligence officers, I have been patiently sitting on the secrets of this book for nearly 6 months now. I was quick to accept when Simon & Schuster Canada proposed the mission - to review, and to be a part of the tour - and gave it a read almost as soon as the ARC arrived on my doorstep. It reminded me of the cold-war espionage thrillers I read growing up, and I drafted my review right away, while the source material was still fresh in my brain, safe from any sort of foreign government tampering.

It's a good thing too, since the mission ended up being delayed by a month, taking us into the end of May for the review, and the first week of June for my interrogation - I mean, friendly Q&A, of course - with the author. Check back next Tuesday for that!

With all that having been said, I can safely say that Red Sparrow is worth the wait. If you find yourself missing the cloak-and-dagger world of the Cold War - somewhere between the time when spy thrillers stopped being all about the gadgets and started being all about gritty, action-packed reboots - then this is a book you will certainly appreciate. This is a contemporary thriller, set in Putin's Russia, and it contains some clever nods to the classic spycraft elements, but it reads like it could have come direct from Gorbachev's Soviet Union  It's an intelligent, slow-moving tale (at least in the early chapters), but no less compelling for it. Jason Matthews quickly establishes the players, the stage, and the stakes, drawing us in and holding us close throughout.

Nathaniel (Nate) is a great character, a charismatic lead who manages to retain the sense of being familiar and down-to-earth, while also demonstrating a propensity for quick action and bold heroics. He's both likable and admirable, which is a difficult mix to pull off, especially in this kind of a story. At the same time, Dominika comes across as an authentic, if seductively dangerous, woman, placed in an awkward situation. A graduate of the Sparrow School of sexual espionage, she could easily have fallen into the disposable Bond-girl mold, but she not only holds her own, she proves herself worthy of sharing the lead.

What I really appreciated about the story was the amount of deceit, double-dealing, and treacherous twists that permeate the text. You're never quite sure who you can trust or what their ultimate motives are, and that's as it should be. As soon as your readers find themselves becoming familiar with the characters, and feeling secure in their presence, then you've failed the genre. Matthews deftly avoids that pitfall, making us want to be believe Nate, and compelling us to want to trust in Dominika, but he never makes any promises. They're never cheap twists, and you never feel as if you've been blindsided, but it's worth remembering that red herrings are part and parcel of the genre.

While this is not an action-packed novel, screaming for a big-budget, blockbuster treatment, it contains more than its fair share of sex, violence, and dramatic tension. The stakes are high, and the story never allows us to lose sight of that. Political diplomacy aside, we're talking about warring forces here, enemy combatants who may operate in the shadows, but who fill those shadows with torture, murder, and sexual exploitation. It's a frightening, ugly world in which to operate, full of necessary evils and uncomfortable decisions. Matthew maintains that tension right to the very last page, keeping the reader intrigued, almost to the point of paranoia.

To say much more than that would be to get into spoiler territory, and I'm far too aware of my own morality to risk crossing the wrong people. However, I will add this - the assassination in the final pages makes for a fitting end, but it also provides ample motive and opportunity for a Red Sparrow sequel. To be honest, I'd like to see Matthew simply leave it at that, since the end works so beautifully, but I wouldn't be too disappointed were he to pick up the threads for a sequel.

As a final note, while I suspect the recipes that follow each chapters are carefully crafted secret messages to Nate's bosses, I'm also reasonably sure they're not meant to poison the enemy, and are likely as tasty as they are intriguing. :)

Expected publication: June 4th 2013 by Scribner
Hardcover, 448 pages