When I learned the author was a former CIA agent, I expected it to be authentic and well researched but clumsily written.
On the contrary, Jason Matthews writes superbly. He has learned a lot from another bestselling author with rather an ordinary name, Thomas Harris.
Indeed, in many ways, Jason Matthews's Red Sparrow is the best popular novel I've read since Thomas Harris (and Hannibal Lecter) made their own first big hit with another red creature, Red Dragon, published back in 1981.
There are several distinct characteristics which distinguish Jason Matthews's prose. He likes to use animal imagery, which he deploys deftly. "Through the pines, the slate-black river was furrowed by the talons of dusk-feeding ospreys."
In particular he likes to use animal analogies, as when the heroine's heartless spymaster of an uncle takes her to lunch. "He was staring at her as he ate, his dead eye unblinking, just as a wolf watches even while drinking at a brook."
Or when describing the state's reaction to the suicide of one of her classmates at spy school: "The bear sniffed at the body, then turned its back."
Our heroine is Dominika Egorova, played in the recent film of Red Sparrow, by Jennifer Lawrence. Dominika becomes a spy for Russia after her promising ballet career is abruptly terminated. Her evil uncle wants her trained as a 'sparrow' — a kind of espionage prostitute.
She is sent to the sparrow academy to be indoctrinated in "an Upper Volga Kama Sutra". But Dominika resists this "colossal indignity". She has other plans.
She is seething with anger and wants revenge against her uncle and against the state. Dominika carefully conceals this secret plan in "the hurricane room inside her."
Matthews writes brilliantly, and with welcome humour. A couple of CIA operatives out in the sticks in Connecticut are "like two Bulgarian swineherds in Sofia for the weekend."
A formidable attacker goes after them like an "unstoppable serial killer at a lakeside summer camp."
And later, after another, equally formidable, adversary is finally felled one of our heroes mutters, "let's seriously consider sawing his head off just to be safe".
Matthews is also cheeky — he includes a recipe at the end of each chapter, even the most harrowing.
His sources of influence are very interesting indeed. Beside Thomas Harris I detect Ian Fleming — of course.
Indeed Matthews seems to be mischievously referencing James Bond's creator whenever he mentions a "firm dry handshake" (a Fleming obsession).
And when a character is described as having "eyes, the whites bluish with health" he seems to be channeling the great John D. MacDonald.
But probably the most intriguing inspiration is Patrick O'Brian. When Matthews speaks of a "toad-eater" (a sycophantic lackey) that's O'Brian. Or when he says of Dominika, "How she longed to wipe the eye of the beast" — meaning to give it a good beating — again we hear O'Brian's voice.
The only reason I read this book is because of the film of it, which I loved. But I love the book even more and I can't recommend it you highly enough.
I intended to compare the book and the film in this blog. However they are so vastly different — and that difference throws up so many issues — that I intend to discuss them in a separate post all on its own.
(Image credits: book covers from Good Reads.)