Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Thriller Review: Palace of Treason by Jason Matthews

Disclaimer: I received an ARC of this title from the publisher in exchange for review consideration. While I make every attempt to avoid spoilers, please be aware that an ARC synopsis, press release, or review request may disclose details that are not revealed in the published cover blurb.

Almost 2 years ago to the day, Jason Matthews unleashed Red Sparrow on the world. It was a fantastic spy thriller that evoked all the drama, intrigue, and mystery of the cold war classics - updated with a contemporary flair for sex, violence, and politics. It was a unique read, but also a refreshing reminder of what the genre used to be all about.

I am pleased to say Palace of Treason actually improves upon the first. It still has the feel of a cold war thriller - equal parts John le Carré, Frederick Forsyth, and Robert Ludlum - but it also incorporates some of the sexy adventure of Ian Fleming at his cinematic best. Matthews has a knack for spy-craft and politics that talks to his status as a CIA insider. This isn't just a man who's read the books, watched the movies, and studied the news, this is somebody who has lived in that world (and survived to tell about it).

Part of what makes his novel so unique is that he incorporates real people and places into the story. So many authors rely on the safety of fictional stand-ins for celebrities, but Matthews not only mentions the Vladimir Putin by name, but makes him a central character to the story. It's daring, but it gives the story a ring of authenticity. Similarly, the problems (and potential) of a Russia coming back to power is dealt with here, along with the terrifying specter of an Iran in pursuit of nuclear weapons.

Nathaniel Nash (CIA) gets some interesting development this time around, more fully fleshing out his character and establishing him as more of a player in the espionage game. He's a smarter, wiser, more observant agent, one who can sniff out (for example) the would-be turncoat hiding beneath the dirty, disheveled, vomit-encrusted homeless man who wanders into the embassy. We get some deeper insights into the depth of his feelings for Dominika, and also come to understand some of the consequences he faces for getting so close. As for Dominika Egorova (SVR), she really flourishes this time around, becoming a heroine worthy of carrying a franchise. She's been tested, broken, and put back together, and she's stronger than ever because of it. She's not above falling back on her training as a sex spy to achieve what she needs, and she's both smart enough and crafty enough to survive the treacherous politics of the Russian secret service. It's hard enough to be a spy, and even harder to be a double-agent, but it takes somebody special to survive being a double-agent spy whose own boss wants her dead.

The violence here is at a whole other level compared to the first book, with an emphasis on torture that I'm sure will leave some readers feeling very uncomfortable. It's brutal, it's graphic, and it's intense. Putin's entire regime is ugly and fearsome, and the more we see of the darkness within the Kremlin, the more we come to appreciate what a delicate dance Dominika is forced to master. There's still plenty of sex and sexuality, although most of it is suggestive here, but Dominika's origins and training are never far from the surface of the story.

Fans of the first Jason Matthews book will find a lot here to enjoy and appreciate. The story is deeper and more complex, the characters are better developed, there's more of s globe-trotting feel, and the entire atmosphere is just stronger. Fortunately, there's enough quick recapping early on to allow new readers to dive right in and not feel like they've missed anything. The cold war itself may be dead, but its literary spirit is still very much alive with Palace of Treason.


Hardcover, 480 pages
Expected publication: June 2nd 2015 by Scribner

4 comments:

  1. Not sure about the intense torture, but otherwise I like the sound of this one. Like that the author placed it firmly in the real world with real people.

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    1. I think the key, Alex, is that the torture isn't gratuitous, but an element of realism that's relevant to the plot.

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  2. sounds like political propaganda to me....

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    1. I wouldn't call it propaganda, Dez. There's no political/social agenda, just an old fashioned spy thriller that makes use of the current political climate. Nobody, US or otherwise, comes off as clean, perfect heroes.

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