Red Sparrow by Jason Matthews

redRed Sparrow is novel published in 2013 by Jason Matthews, a retired CIA field operative who has experience collecting national security intelligence and recruiting new officers. He conducted operations against Russia, and operated in areas of East Asia, East Europe, the Caribbean, and Middle East.

The plot begins with Nathaniel Nash, a CIA officer who is on a mission to secretly exchange information with MARBLE, a seasoned Russian officer who aids the CIA with top-secret information about the leader’s plans. However, Nathaniel and his ally experience a near-encounter with Russian surveillance. Fortunately, both men are able to escape and successfully complete the mission. Nevertheless, Nathaniel receives a harsh scolding from his director and loses his job and opportunity to gain a higher position in the CIA. Although this outcome may seem severe for a one small mishap, the author reveals how Nathaniel has been dealing with the cut-throat mentality of the CIA for a long time. This explains why anger spills over in Nathaniel’s mind. He explodes into rage and dares to yell back at his director.

From the outside, Dominika Egorova seems to be an ordinary, simple, and beautiful young woman. However, the novel reveals her painful experiences with the Russian government, which provokes her to prove her worth to the Americans in order to be able to work under their care. Dominika never yearned to be a spy for any government. However, when her promising ballet career ends in an accident and father dies in a stroke, she takes up on an opportunity to work for the SVR, an Russian Intelligence Service.

On her first mission, Dominika is put to work with Egrov who orders her to seduce to possibly gain any useful information against an enemy of Putin. While she performs her duty, an unexpected assassin murders Dominika’s target. This puts her in danger due Egrov’s expectation that she could possibly unleash this happening that would ruin his ambitions to become an elected official. As a solution, Dominika suggests her admission to the SVR academy, where she could officially become a qualified spy under an oath. However, her uncle sends her off to Sparrow School, where women are taught to use their physical attributes to seduce and gain secret information about their enemies. Once again, Dominika feels belittled because of her beauty and gender and because she is not able to lead a formal mission using her intelligence, but instead is forced to serve as a pawn under the Russian government. She responds to her uncle with a short, yet blunt reply.

“You’re sending me to whore school.”

When Dominika is sent to Helsinki to uncover who who has been passing information to an American officer, Nathanial Nash, she unexpectedly falls in love with him. The author’s way of portraying the relationship between the two truly captures how love can still blossom in difficult times and induces a sense of hopefulness in the audience.

“Dominika,” he said, and the rushing in his ears started, the old danger signal.

“Will you break your rules again?” she asked. She saw his purple lust, it lit up the darkened room.

“I want you to violate your rules … with me… not your agent, me” said Dominika.”

Despite disapproval from both sides of their intelligence comunities, the relationship blossoms. However, after Dominika’s mission fails and she is suspected of helping the Americans, she taken away, jailed, and tortured. Without a confession, the Russian director decides to reinstate her as a spy and this leads her to work with General Korchnoi.

The audience is taught that General Korchnoi is actually MARBLE, the double spy who has been working with Nathaniel from earlier in the novel. He possesses an ambitious plan to train Dominika to become the next “MARBLE,” and persuades her to turn him in as a traitor. If Dominika follows his plan, she would be able to gain enough trust from the SVR in order to become the next general. Eventually, Dominika discovers Korchnoi’s plan and feels extreme betrayal towards the Americans. She claims that she will not go back to Russia, rejecting SVR’s orders. The SVR makes a deal with her, promising her the safety of Korchnoi if she returned to Russia. However, just when the swap is about to become finalized, Korchnoi is murdered by a Russian assassin. Betrayed by both countries, the audience is left to wonder whether she will go back to the Americans or the Russians.

The heart-wrenching plot of Red Sparrow, overflowing with intricate details of the inner workings of the CIA and restless portrayal of a spy’s mindset is a must read. The author’s background truly adds a sense of realism to the novel, which sets it apart from other spy novels I’ve read that sometimes seems too far-fetched and or unfathomable. After much analysis, I feel that this novel encompasses a significant literary thread that I personally relate to. Throughout her journey, Dominika is constantly refused by men to serve as an intelligence officer and instead forced to use her physical attributes to her advantage. The constant feelings of rejection and humility are experiences that I have dealt with as a woman living in a patriarchal society. Before attending an all-girls school, I struggled more than my male counterparts to secure certain competitive positions, because of the public’s mindset that boys are generally more intelligent and reliable when working with “big matters,” such as representing the school. This captivating and relatable thread is another reason why I feel this novel is not simply an ordinary spy novel.

Other works by Jason Matthews include Palace of Treason, The Kremlin’s Candidate, and Cipher’s Sisters. Novels that deal with similar themes as portrayed in this novel include A Divided Spy by Charles Cumming, I Am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes, and The Prodigal Spy by Joseph Kanon.

Reviewed by Susie Y ’18