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Literature / Sekret

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Sekret is a 2014 novel by Lindsay Smith. It follows Yulia Chernina, a Soviet teenager with psychic abilities, as she's unwillingly recruited into spying for the USSR. She meets a whole team of similarly gifted teenagers and has to learn to control her new abilities, navigate State Sec's literal thought policing, succeed in her new career as a spy while facing off against an opponent so powerful she can't look directly at him, deal with revelations about her family history and the nature of her abilities, and handle dating, alpha bitches, and general petty teenage drama in her circle of "coworkers."

The story is continued in Skandal (2015), which shows the state of psychic spying on the other side of the Cold War.

This series provides examples of:

  • Adult Fear: Yulia’s parents did what they had to do to keep her and Zhenya safe from USSR State Sec, which motivates most of both of their actions throughout both books, most notably when her father risks derailing a CIA operation to bring Yulia to the US. In real life, the USSR was one of many dictatorships to exploit I Have a Family to keep the adults in line.
  • Ambiguous Disorder: It’s fairly clear from the narrative that Zhenya has what we would now recognize as some form of autism, but due to the setting, no one has or uses that term for it. Mercifully, the little we see isn’t the Hollywood kind.
  • Bad Powers, Good People: Nice Guy Valentin is a scrubber, capable of making people do whatever he wants. Unlike the ones working for the villains, the worst he ever actually does with it is a Charm Person glamour when he needs to get into a building. Still, it’s a relief for him at the end of Skandal when he loses his powers.
    • The ending of Sekret reveals that that American scrubber who was too powerful to even look at, who kept showing up wherever their team deployed and ruining everything, is actually Yulia’s father Andrei. There’s some doubt over whether this trope applies during Skandal as he’s acting like a Jerkass and abusing his powers left and right, and at one point Yulia even wonders whether he’s the mole. It eventually turns out he really is a good guy who’s in a self-destructive spiral after damaging his own brain to escape, and he starts to get it together toward the end of the book.
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  • Battle in the Center of the Mind: Throughout the series, there are examples of people trying to resist scrubbers' control over them, scrubbers trying to control each other, multiple scrubbers fighting for control over the same person, etc., leading to lots of this. Sometimes shown from the outside; people move jerkily or look like they're fighting against invisible enemies. At one point there's a Car Chase between two scrubbers where both cars are constantly fishtailing as their drivers struggle to stay in control of their own minds.
  • Been There, Shaped History: After all the protagonists go through, witnessing an entire manned rocket launch which fails and gets unpersoned out of history and seeing both Khrushchev and LBJ attacked by psychics at different points, the one thing that sticks is the in-universe reason for the relocation of the Soviet Embassy in DC.
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  • Bilingual Bonus: Lots throughout for Russian-speaking readers, though it’s generally limited to concepts that translate clumsily into English (e.g. molodtsa note ).
  • The Charmer / Charm Person: Donna in Skandal has this as her ability. Not everyone likes her automatically, but even then she tends to get what she wants out of them if they’re not prepared.
    • This isn't Valentin's ability, but he also uses it this way once or twice.
  • Conveniently Coherent Thoughts: Or rather suspiciously coherent thoughts. A mole is exposed when the team deliberately spills a drink on her and her coherent, inane train of thought (actually her thought shield) keeps going the way it was going for several seconds before acknowledging it.
  • Dark and Troubled Past:
    • Yulia’s father disappeared a few years before the first book, and she, her brother and her mother had to move in with relatives and nearly starve trying to split two ration allotments five ways. Then we find out those mysteriously absent memories were deliberately erased by her father for her own good.
    • Valentin has it worse, though. After he struggles with the memory alone for two books, we finally learn that his mother, who never learned to control her psychic powers and was sure he wouldn’t be able to control his, tried to drown them both to “free” them. He barely survived; she didn’t.
  • Double Reverse Quadruple Agent: Andrei Chernin is a Soviet defector working for the CIA, who has a numbers station set up in his house which indicates they might be a mole. He’s on the American side and is using the numbers station as bait.
  • Emotion Bomb: Yulia regularly struggles with the emotions she picks up from everything around her until she learns she can do this to get rid of them. More than once it puts a major villain out of action.
  • Fainting Seer / Power-Strain Blackout: Yulia is the most frequent victim of this due to her Power Incontinence, but most of the cast have to deal with psychic blackouts or at least brownouts at one point or another.
  • Game-Breaker: Scrubbers are considered this in-universe for their ability to not just read minds, unlike most psychics, but rearrange them. Both books are full of nightmare-inducing descriptions of what it feels like to be attacked by one, and what they’re capable of making people do.
  • Generation Xerox: Like her parents during World War II, Yulia goes on to become half of a psychic Spy Couple. As the series goes on, the jovial Sergei also becomes more and more like his parents... who are General Rostov and Major Kruzenko.
  • Government Drug Enforcement: In Skandal, the CIA is happy to involve actual psychics in its (real-life) experiments with LSD and other psychoactives. Marylou in particular spends the vast majority of the book high. Somewhat hilariously, it’s eventually revealed that psychics are less powerful while on LSD.
  • Memory Gambit: Andrei inflicts this on Yulia in hopes of keeping her and the rest of the family safe. It works for a few years, but because he erased all her memories related to her powers, she doesn’t know how or when not to use them and eventually gets recruited anyway.
  • Mind Rape: All the scrubbers are capable of this, sometimes on purpose and sometimes by accident or when their powers interact badly with someone else’s. See Power Incontinence.
  • The Mole: In Skandal, Frank is a Mole in Charge. It’s villainous Teeth-Clenched Teamwork as he’s aggressively anti-Soviet, but agrees with their goal of a US war with Vietnam.
  • Mundane Utility: Done darkly (by the trope’s standards) with an extremely powerful scrubber using his abilities for things like reducing his restaurant bill. It’s described the same way as when scrubbers modify people’s minds for plot-related reasons and comes across as almost equally creepy.
  • Not So Different: The similarities and differences between the CIA and KGB are discussed throughout Skandal. Ultimately, while Yulia is never happy with the CIA, she sees the absence of fear in Washington compared to Moscow and decides that makes it worth helping.
  • Numbers Stations: Andrei has one set up in his study. Yulia finds it and suspects him of being the mole, but he’s actually a triple agent (really on the American side) and is using it as bait.
  • Parental Abandonment: Yulia first by her father, then apparently by her mother, depending on which country she’s in at the time. She also spends Skandal feeling emotionally abandoned by her father; it turns out it’s his way of not coping well with what he had to do to leave the USSR behind, namely erasing all his own memories of his wife.
  • Power Glows: Not entirely literally—he seems to look normal to Muggles—but the American scrubber in Sekret has this effect on the team, Yulia especially. They don’t know what he looks like because they can’t look directly at him; she repeatedly compares it to looking directly at the sun.
  • Power Incontinence: Yulia finds it very difficult to not absorb history from the things and people she touches, which can be very painful. Early in Sekret, she violently recoils from a cot that used to belong to a psychic who lost control. It gets worse when she starts having to work with objects that scrubbers have used; she describes it as feeling like her brain is being washed with steel wool.
  • Psychic-Assisted Suicide: General Rostov’s signature way of dealing with enemies.
  • Psychic Nosebleed: Happens regularly, unusually for a medium that also thoroughly shows the action inside the characters' heads.
  • Psychic Static: Keeping a song going around in your head keeps anyone from reading your actual thoughts. It’s the first thing Yulia learns when she’s recruited. By the sequel, thanks to Andrei’s advice, everyone in the CIA from the director down to the janitors is using one. Ironically, it’s also a window into the user’s personality; since it has to be on all the time, they have to pick something they won’t get tired of, and what that is tends to say a lot about their moods and interests. It can even be the point of failure while technically doing its job: the mole in Skandal gets caught because they used the song from Andrei’s bait numbers station as their musical shield.
  • Psycho Serum: Much of Skandal revolves around a drug that turns Muggles into incredibly powerful psychics... for a few days, before the power overloads and they die horribly.
  • Recruit Teenagers with Attitude: Crosses over into Child Soldiers. The USSR and the United States both start training psychics and even using them for fieldwork as soon as their powers start to show, usually well before they turn 18.
  • Seeing Through Another's Eyes: Yulia can do this with the remote viewers Sergei and Masha in Sekret, and learns to do it with Marylou in Skandal. There’s one particular funny scene of her trying to move her body like usual while watching from Marylou’s vantage point and stumbling and crashing into things.
  • The '60s: Skandal is set in Washington, DC in 1964, and features LBJ, Jackie Kennedy-style suits, beehive hairdos, hippies, the Civil Rights Movement, and lots of talk about a possible war with Vietnam.
  • Spy School: Most of the action in Sekret takes place inside a KGB-run psychic espionage training facility. Then in Skandal we get to see the CIA version.
  • State Sec: Omnipresent (as they do). Yulia's unwilling recruitment to work for them kicks off the plot.
  • Tarot Motifs: Cindy’s future-foretelling powers revolve around tarot, which sometimes has trippy results as the figures on the cards can crop up in her vision in everyday settings.
  • Touch Telepathy: Yulia’s unique ability. It also works on inanimate objects.
  • Villain Override: A fairly regular occurrence throughout the books. General Rostov and the serum-created scrubbers in Skandal don’t hesitate to make random innocent passersby attack the protagonists.
  • Weird Historical War: The Cold War WITH PSYCHICS!

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