Simon & Schuster UK
Copy courtesy of Simon & Schuster Aus
Nathaniel Nash is a CIA officer working in Putin’s Russia currently handling one of the most high level moles. Codenamed MARBLE, the high ranking Russian official of the SVR, the successor of the KGB, he has been feeding the American’s information for over 10 years. All meetings with MARBLE are meticulously planned and carried out but one night after spending 12 hours attempting to make sure that he wasn’t followed, Nathaniel is nearly caught. His superiors determine that he needs to get out of Russia, somewhere a little less hot and he is transferred to Helsinki.
Dominika Egorova is a former ballet dancer who is recruited to “Sparrow School” by her uncle of all people. Sparrow School teaches operatives to seduce foreign agents in order to trick them into giving them information. When she finishes the course, Dominika is sent to Helsinki to target Nathaniel Nash, whom the Russians believe to be handling a very high level traitor. Dominika is ordered to seduce Nathaniel for information but doesn’t realise that he may be working her in turn.
Dominika has more than just the trained set of skills in her possession. She has synesthesia, the ability to see music and emotions as colours and her ability to see colours around a person allow her to decipher whether or not she can trust them. In Nate, she finds that he only ever exudes the most beautiful purple, a colour of trust and passion, never a murky yellow or brown colour of deceit. Although she is supposed to be working him over for information, Dominika finds herself becoming slowly disillusioned with some of the things that her beloved Motherland does.
The more time Nate and Dominka spend together, the more complicated things become. Neither of them are able to report much progress at first to their superiors and each are determined to get their career on track by getting their information. But things become complicated as real feelings begin to come into play which won’t only threaten their lives but international security as well.
Jason Matthews is a former CIA agent so it’s clear that he knows his subject well. I have to admit, I’m a bit naive, I thought the days of America and Russia spying on each other and recruiting double agents and knocking off each other were long over but apparently not. Putin is portrayed as a power hungry megalomaniac in this novel, determined to raise up Russia’s profile and not allow America to humiliate his country any longer. Russia is often painted as a mischief maker, providing aid and arms to countries and regimes where it might annoy America the most. Given Matthews is an American who worked in international security for his company, America is pretty much portrayed as being awesome, always right and the ‘good guy’s. Never ever the bad.
I think that’s fine, as in a novel like this you generally need a good guy and a bad guy. Nathaniel is typically an idealist, youngish and determined to prove himself. He’s from a Southern family of lawyers who mocked him when he joined the CIA and ran a pool of how long he would last – the last thing he wants to do is return home a failure. He is privileged with handling MARBLE but when one night meeting goes wrong, he’s whipped out of Russia and feels the sting. He wants to recruit Dominika as a way to raise his profile again, prove that he can do it, that he has what it takes. He doesn’t count on falling in love with her.
I have to admit, I might be naive but I thought Nathaniel was as well! He’s a CIA agent in Russia, almost caught meeting a high ranking Russian source. He ends up in Helsinki and not long later, finds himself crossing paths with a beautiful Russian woman who works for the SVR but he refuses to believe that there’s anything suspicious about this. You’d think that he’d be cautious of any and all Russians who attempt to make contact with him, especially in such a casual, offhand way. But even though it is suggested to him several times that Dominika might be an agent working him, he refuses to believe it until Dominika, disillusioned with her task, pretty much comes out and says yeah, I’m an agent and I’m working you.
Despite this little hiccup in what I thought would be CIA standard protocol to be suspicious, I enjoyed this book. It brings to mind a vision of the Cold War and two countries with their finger on the button, dancing around each other, but neither of them pushing it. I think Dominika was a great character, part passionate Russia devotee, part idealistic little girl who wanted to dance, part robotic seduction agent churned out by Sparrow School. Her synesthesia added a great element to the story, giving her that edge, the ability to know when she was going to be duped or when she could trust someone. Although I liked the fact that she and Nate seemed to bring out things in the other that no one else did (and their conversations were first rate) I am not sure if I really bought into the fact that they were supposed to be in love. That just didn’t come across as well as I think it could have, or should have, especially towards the end. Speaking of the end, I have to say, it left me very deflated. It’s not something that was unsurprising but Matthews threw me a lifeline of hope and then viciously yanked it away from me in the dying pages. It made me feel a bit flat. But I have no doubt that it served the story well – I was meant to feel that way. It further reinforced the good vs evil message that the whole book was constructed around.
I’m not sure if this is the beginning of a possible series, but it does end rather openly. There’s loose ends that could be tied up in further volumes or it could all just be left up to the reader’s imagination.
Book #155 of 2013