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Literature / Red Sparrow

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"Russia certainly did not lose the Cold War... It never ended."

Red Sparrow is an espionage thriller novel written by ex-CIA officer Jason Matthews. The novel was published in 2013, and was followed by a sequel, titled Palace of Treason, in 2015. A third book, The Kremlins Candidate, was released in 2018, concluding the trilogy.

In today's Russia, dominated by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, state intelligence officer Dominika Egorova struggles to survive in the cast-iron bureaucracy of post-Soviet intelligence. Drafted against her will to become a "Sparrow," a trained seductress in the service, Dominika is assigned to operate against Nathaniel Nash, a first-tour CIA officer who handles the CIA's most sensitive penetration of Russian intelligence. The two young intelligence officers, trained in their respective spy schools, collide in a charged atmosphere of tradecraft, deception, and inevitably, a forbidden spiral of carnal attraction that threatens their careers and the security of America's valuable mole in Moscow. Seeking revenge against her soulless masters, Dominika begins a fatal double life, recruited by the CIA to ferret out a high-level traitor in Washington; hunt down a Russian illegal buried deep in the U.S. military and, against all odds, to return to Moscow as the new-generation penetration of Putin's intelligence service.

A film adaptation of Red Sparrow was released in 2018 starring Jennifer Lawrence as Dominika Egorova, to be followed by the release of the last book in the trilogy. The first trailer can be viewed here, and the official trailer here.

The character sheet can be found here.

  • Author Appeal: Jason Matthews appears to be a real foodie, as every chapter of his novels, except for the final chapters, end with a recipe for a food item that was mentioned within the chapter. Said recipes are, however, only a set of instructions, and do not include quantities of ingredients.
  • The Bad Guy Wins: The Russians manage to get Dominika back after she exposes Korchnoi as the SVR mole they have been hunting down throughout the novel. Meanwhile, the Americans are left with the body of Korchnoi, who is assassinated after he and Dominika have been exchanged for one another by the CIA and SVR. The novel leaves uncertain whether Dominika has agreed to continue Korchnoi's work for the Americans, or is bent on leaving the spy life behind; her decision is only revealed at the start of the sequel, Palace of Treason.
  • Bait-and-Switch Gunshot: In the last chapter of the novel, a sniper takes a shot as the exchange between Dominika and Korchnoi is almost completed. An earlier paragraph depicted the sniper as setting her sights on Dominika, but it turns out Korchnoi was the intended target, and he dies in Nate's arms as the novel ends.
  • Big Bad Ensemble: Vanya Egorov, Alexei Zyuganov, and most prominently Vladimir Putin himself.
  • Bilingual Bonus: The novels are a treat for anyone curious about the Russian language, as several phrases and words are accompanied by their corresponding English equivalents, or can be translated in context. There are, however, a couple of untranslated Russian phrases, particularly some very lewd remarks by Dominika.
  • Body Horror: Multiple instances throughout the novel highlight the sheer brutality of the Russians, including the injury that ends Dominika's ballet career before it even started, several depictions of prisoners being tortured and interrogated (later including Dominika herself), as well as the victims of the ruthless Spetsnaz assassin Sergey Matorin.
  • Cold-Blooded Torture: Alexei Zyuganov started his career as a prison interrogator, and has a reputation for being a sadist. In the middle of the novel, upon Dominika's return to Moscow after meeting Nate, she is tortured for several weeks under suspicion of conspiring with the Americans.
  • Double Entendre: Several of the Sparrow techniques Dominika learns are phrased this way, while others are more... biologically specific.
  • Dramatic Irony: The novel runs on this, with the very first chapter already telling the reader exactly who the mole is. The rest of the story has the Russians attempting to unmask him, and the Americans trying to protect him at all costs.
  • Duel of Seduction: Nate and Dominika's first meeting in Helsinki becomes this; although only Dominika had been explicitly ordered to seduce him. Nate was looking simply for an operational asset.
  • Feed the Mole: Once Vanya Egorov manages to narrow down his list of suspects of who the SVR mole might be, he initiates a "canary trap" by telling his colleagues different variations of the same story. One of the suspects slips and tells Korchnoi, the real mole, his variant of the story, allowing Korchnoi to draw suspicion away from himself for a while. This later allows him and Simon Benford to set Dominika up for her to report back his actual variant of the story, allowing her to take the credit for exposing him.
  • For Want Of A Nail: Several events in the novel are triggered by a careless slip of the tongue that unwittingly seals a character's fate. Marta Yelenova bringing up Ustinov (about whom Dominika had been strictly sworn to secrecy) gets her killed, and Vanya's "canary trap" hinges on his colleagues knowing only one of several variants of a story.
  • Last Breath Bullet: The novel ends with Korchnoi sniped by a Russian SVR assassin just as he was crossing over to the West.
  • Prisoner Exchange: Once Korchnoi is caught as the mole, with Dominika still among the Americans (and the Russians convinced that she was responsible for exposing him), the CIA and SVR agree to return Dominika to Russia in exchange for Korchnoi coming to the Americans. The exchange is made in the last chapter of the novel; Dominika returns to Moscow safely, but Korchnoi is assassinated before he reaches CIA custody.
  • Punctuated! For! Emphasis!: "'Find. Out. Who. It. Is.' Each word was punctuated with a tap on Egorov's desk, with a thick index finger."
  • Ragtag Bunch of Misfits: Forsyth, Gable, and Nash are all intelligence officers who got screwed over by CIA bureaucracy in one way or another.
  • Running Gag: Each chapter ends with the recipe for a dish featured in it.
  • Sexual Karma: Almost every other instance of Dominika sleeping with somebody has her either not enjoying it, or simply falling back on her Sparrow training for the sake of her mark. When she and Nate have sex, however, she is able to give herself over to her "secret self" and enjoy the act.
  • Spear Counterpart: In Sparrow School, Dominika also meets male students who are trained to become "Ravens." They never feature in the story, however.
  • Spy School: The novel depicts both Nate's time in the CIA's Farm where he learns street tradecraft as well as surveillance detection and evasion, and Dominika going to SVR Academy to become an intelligence officer before Vanya sends her off to Sparrow School to be trained as a seductress.
  • Two Lines, No Waiting: The plotlines tend to switch between Nate and Dominika, or between the CIA and the SVR.
  • When Harry Met Svetlana: American CIA officer Nathaniel Nash meets Russian SVR seductress Dominika Egorova.