Review of the Red Sparrow Trilogy by Jason Matthews
tl;dr — The Red Sparrow Trilogy by Jason Matthews is an excellent spy thriller series that keeps getting better with every book.
“Her name was Dominika Egorova. She was a ballerina, an officer in the SVR, a Sparrow trained to bend others’ minds. She loved and was loved in return.”
The Red Sparrow Trilogy is written by Jason Matthews, retired officer of the CIA’s Operations Directorate.
The trilogy follows Dominika Egorova from her humble beginnings to becoming the Director of the SVR and a double agent for the CIA. Nate Nash — her handler, Marty Gable — long time CIA agent and Simon Benford — the CIA Chief of Counter Intelligence are the major supporting characters. The stories revolve around the espionage dance between the CIA and the SVR, intertwined with a love story between Dominika and Nate.
Individual reviews of these books follow the review of the series.
The Red Sparrow Trilogy is brilliant. It is one of those rare series where the stories get progressively better with each instalment. This series does not out stay its welcome by milking the concept till it starts to wear thin. It signs off on a high note with a conclusion that will stay in your mind for a while. It starts off slow with the first book — The Red Sparrow, amps it up in the ‘Palace of Treason’ and ends with a bang in ‘The Kremlin’s Candidate’.
Jason Matthews has fast-paced style of writing which draws the reader in. He has a wicked sense of humour which expresses itself when you least expect. The characters are realistic with great personalities. Dominika, of course, has the most detailed character arc with Nate being a close second. The plots are standard spy vs spy fare but they are told in a fashion that tends to be quite engrossing. The description of operations also feel very authentic.
Now, this series does suffer from one flaw (which most thrillers do). It is too US-centric with the villains being cartoonish. I really did not like the demonisation of Putin & the Russians. While he is a despot, it is not like the US leadership is any better. The author seems to be feel that democracies are justified in what they do while others are not. As far as I am concerned, actions speak louder than words and it doesn’t really matter what kind of political set-up exists when people are being killed. The CIA has been portrayed as being the bulwark against Russian brutality. Hmmm. It is not like that the CIA has not do wet work or toppled democracies. But I suppose most readers will not be bothered by this hypocrisy.
But, leaving this aside, the books are definitely worth a read.
Red Sparrow is an okayish spy thriller. The best thing is its sheer authenticity and ‘grounded-ness’ of the day to day clandestine operations similar to the way the Pike Logan books feel authentic in their action due to Brad Thor’s background. While I am no spy (or am I?) or spec ops warrior (maybe?) and cannot obviously vouch for the authenticity, Jason Matthews and Brad Thor communicate this feeling of realism that other authors in the genre, who have not been in the field, cannot communicate.
Anyway, barring this and the usual ‘who can you trust’ and ‘who is working for whom’ plots, this book does not have anything else going for it. I found the demonisation of the Russians and Putin to be quite puerile and a bit hypocritical. The villains follow the usual tropes — skilled manipulator, sadistic killer etc. Additionally, the character of Natasha Romanoff Dominika is quite strong and tends to stick in your mind, more-so than other characters.
Don’t believe all the denials though- Red Sparrow is best described as a mature version of the Black Widow.
I had a blast reading Palace of Treason. It has everything you need from a spy thriller — sex, violence, mind games and betrayals; with the same authenticity as Red Sparrow.
There is a main plot but it is for name’s sake. It takes back seat to the shenanigans of the returning characters from Red Sparrow — Dominika, Nate, Benford, Zyuganov etc. And Putin plays a bigger part in this story. This cast of characters is excellent and every one of them is well developed.
The key takeaway for me, though, is its humour. This book is full of it. It is irreverent, dark and crude or highbrow as the situation demands. And this is what makes Palace of Treason better than Red Sparrow, since it does not take itself so seriously.
The Kremlin’s Candidate is an excellent conclusion to the Red Sparrow Trilogy. It has a great story, intricate plotting and an ending that will stay with you long after the book is over.
Without getting too much into spoiler territory, let me just that The Kremlin’s Candidate is an exploration of the various themes that pertain to Dominika — her upbringing, Sparrow school, her rise in the SVR — from other spy agencies’ perspectives. Her character development is also brilliant.
The book is good till the final act and the climax catapults it into greatness category. I found the ending to be almost Le Carre-like. It is realistic, brutal and essentially, the world moves on.
Originally published at Digital Amrit.