Book Reviews: Hunting for Moles with Jason Matthews in Red Sparrow and Palace of Treason

spying for the star-crossed in two heavy-hitting novels

It took a 7-figure deal on two books and movie rights, but Jason Matthews has finally left the shadows of a 33-year CIA career for publishing stardom.

Dominika Egorova is a sparrow, a woman molded and calibrated to seduce men in honey traps and tear away their secrets along with their boxers. If ever you wish to complain about student loans, the price she pays at Sparrow School runs higher. A fiery synesthete, Dominika cuts a swath through the mind-numbing, degrading sex education with an iron core and a fierce vulnerability.

Her counterpart, CIA spook Nate Nash draws a little bit more of a milquetoast blank in a world populated with living, breathing agents, handlers, and moles. On the American side, exasperated station chief Tom Forsythe and especially foul-mouthed Marty Gable steal scenes with crackling buddy cop chemistry. Minor characters like a pair of older Helsinki spies or a trio of Langley nerd scientists make their memorable marks. It’s on the Russian side, that the dimensions also start to break down with the unrelenting backstabbing of SVR intelligence and Zyuganov’s one-note evil.

Russia is curdling on the inside, and it would be no spoiler to say that Dominika begins to rethink her loyalties in the midst of a revived Cold War. Matthews manages to capture the slow-burn of disaffection and treason in his spies, his words pounded out with hammer and chisel in brutal, muscular prose: “Over the next week, Angevine’s rage bubbled and developed an edge like a cheap Chianti in a plastic carboy.” Running counterpoint to this is each chapter’s end, buttoned with a recipe for kroppkakor potato dumplings, cold dolmas, or shashlik kebabs. Matthews wants you to taste the world alongside the blood and grime.

And more than a few have been surprised how the manuscript has escaped the CIA’s censors mostly unscathed. If ever you want to learn about cables, dead drops, tails, and the horrors of governmental bureaucracy, Matthews delivers a graduate course in tradecraft. If you’re the sort who’s terrified by government surveillance, put these books down and back away slowly.

There are occasional mistakes. Red Sparrow in particular burns it rotors overtime on its descriptions of Dominika’s beauty. Ditto for her synesthesia, which she uses to parse the emotions of others in colored halos. Useful for a spy, but I’m not in love with reading about everyone’s yellow aura.

But these mistakes are swallowed up in the vastness and precision of Matthews’ plotting and his locales, rendered in full HD. Globe-trotting across Rome, Athens, Vienna, and Putin’s Kremlin itself, Dominika and Nate fall into and out of traps as readily as into bed. It’s James Bond without the martinis and the post-imperialist poshness. It’s John le Carré with blood and guts and a taste for food. It’s spy writing at its best.

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