Tag Archives: spy thriller

Red Sparrow

A thriller about Russian and American spycraft

Content warning: objectification of women, torture, sexual assault

It is the time for film adaptations, and this book is actually the tie-in edition. I remember seeing quite a slick trailer for this film (though I had never seen it), so on a whim I picked up this book at the Lifeline Book Fair. I have been reading a lot of books that have been adapted into films or TV shows recently so I thought I would stick with this trend and chip away at my to-read shelf.

Image is of “Red Sparrow” by Jason Matthews. The paperback book is sitting next to a bowl of borsch, Eastern European beetroot soup garnished with sour cream and dill. The cover is red with a picture of Jennifer Lawrence who plays one of the main characters in the film adaptation.

“Red Sparrow” by Jason Matthews is a thriller novel about Russian and American spies. After her career is stymied, former ballet dancer Dominika is pressured by her uncle to join Russian intelligence and train to become a ‘sparrow’, a secret agent trained in seduction. Her target is Nate: an American CIA agent who is forced to leave Russia and take up a much less exciting post in Finland. When Nate and Dominika cross paths, they are instantly drawn to one another and begin a game of spycraft made even more dangerous by attraction.

Image is of the book in a paper bag filled with ingredients in reusable containers.

I was able to forgive a lot in this book for one simple reason: at the end of each chapter was a recipe. I absolutely love fiction books with recipes, and this book had a recipe at the end of every chapter. The story had quite a lot of potential, and the earlier chapters in particular were tense and surprising. I enjoyed reading about Russia, and even if the parts about the sparrow school weren’t even remotely true it made for compelling (though disturbing) reading.

Image is of the book next to a plate of potato fritters that were absolutely delicious, and a creamy spinach dip that didn’t quite work.

As enjoyable as it was to cook recipes from the book, the rest of the book left a lot to be desired. I thought that the set up would have been perfect for a Spy vs. Spy thriller, where both Dominika and Nate use their spycraft skills to try to hook the other into betraying their country and spilling state secrets. Unfortunately, this book suffered from classic American exceptionalism, the tension between Dominika and Nate is broken way too early on and the book swiftly becomes more about the mechanics of passing on state secrets which, while of great interest to a former CIA agent, was of far less interest to me. This decision to shift focus meant that the pacing felt sluggish for the rest of the book, and I was much less invested in the characters. One thing I was shocked about was how frequently the author referred to breasts. Perhaps I’m not the target audience, but I was really shocked at how frequently the narrative was interrupted with superfluous references to breasts.

I’d like to say that the film was better, but it was not. They made the torture more gruesome, the sex more rapey and there was, disturbingly, more chemistry between Dominika and her uncle than there was between Dominika and Nate. An OK book peppered with fun recipes that did not need a film adaptation.

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The Rook

Urban fantasy about amnesia and a secret society

This was a set book for my feminist fantasy book club. It is getting a lot of attention recently because it is being adapted into a TV series. We mostly read books written by women, but this author is an Australian man who wrote this book from the perspective of a woman.

Image result for the rook daniel o'malley

“The Rook” by Daniel O’Malley is an urban fantasy novel based in London about Myfanwy, a young woman who wakes up with no memory. When she finds a letter in her jacket pocket to herself from herself, she discovers that she works for a secret agency as a high ranking administrator and that someone is trying to kill her. As she follows the trail her former self left her, Myfanwy is faced with a decision: start a new life, or solve the mystery of her old life.

This is a fun, fantasy/superhero take on the classic spy thriller genre. O’Malley brings bureaucracy to life and explores the concept of how a government could possibly handle ongoing and wildly variable threats of a supernatural variety. O’Malley is a spirited writer and largely this is an easy book to read. It actually reminded me a lot of Brent Weeks’ “The Night Angel Trilogy“, both in style and in the concept of some of the antagonists. O’Malley pushes human bodies and human wills to their limits in a similar way.

Prior to meeting with the rest of my book club, I had been taking notes on my phone, which I won’t quote here because it is way too full of spoilers, about things that bothered me about this book. There were numerous things. First of all, as someone with a Welsh name that your average Australian struggles to say, I was absolutely aghast that O’Malley made the decision to suggest that Myfanwy pronounces her name “Miffany”. What? WHAT?! No. Unacceptable. If you want to call your character Miffany: fine. Do that. But to deliberately mangle a Welsh name is completely out of order and I refused to think of her name as anything other than Myfanwy the entire time reading this book.

I could see what he was doing, but I did feel at times that O’Malley was trying to be diverse and global while writing this book, but sometimes it just did not work. For example, at one point he refers flippantly to “sunning herself on some balcony in Borneo”. Borneo, for those playing at home, is not a country; it is an enormous island shared by three countries: Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei. I won’t go in detail to the lack of high-rises, the proportion of rainforest, the humidity or the conservative clothing culture. However, O’Malley made a few off-hand remarks about far away places and advantages that some races have to using powers, and it fell a bit flat.

I think that the biggest problem I had with this book was the exposition. So. Much. Exposition. In my notes I wrote “this book is 60% exposition”. The structure of the book is primarily an alternation between Myfanwy’s current thoughts, and the letters that past Myfanwy has left her to read explaining her job and how things work. While this is a perfectly acceptable way to structure the novel, despite supposedly differing significantly in personality, the two Myfanwys are almost indistinguishable in voice. Past Myfanwy also spends most of her time writing at length about different aspects of the Checquy (pronounced mystifyingly and annoyingly as Sheck-Eh). I appreciate O’Malley’s worldbuilding, I do, but there has to be a balance between giving your readers enough information to understand your world and actually propelling the story along.

I think that this book is probably very appealing to a lot of people, and I foresee that the TV series is going to be very popular. It annoyed me on a lot of levels, but it was readable enough and novel enough to get me through.

 

 

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