Review: Red Sparrow

Red Sparrow: A Novel by Jason Matthews. Pocket Books, 2014. Mass Market Paperback, 576 pp. ISBN13: 9781476764177.


Disclaimer: Uncharacteristically high salt content in this review.

Ever wanted to see what happens when an OSRLI is given her own story?

Well neither did I, but that’s life for ya…

It’s finally time to tackle Red Sparrow by Jason Matthews. Red Sparrow was heaped with praise upon publication, with some critics calling it an original work to rival Le Carré’s finest.

Needless to say, I don’t share that view. This is a spy novel feature on Russia Reviewed, for crying out loud. If you’re in the mood for a fairly run-of-the-mill story glazed in forcefully “literary” writing with a sprinkle of outdated stereotypes on top, then Red Sparrow is your book. But otherwise…

Make yourself comfortable; grab some popcorn. We’ve got a lot to unpack.

In a 2010s Russia filled with darkness, longing, and propaganda, but not a single smartphone or tablet (seriously, no mention at all within 547 pages – Dimakins is president as the events of this story unfold, for chrissakes), as the Iron Curtain seemingly descends once more, one woman’s career is on the rise. Dominika Egorova, the gifted daughter of a dissident academician and a fiery accompanist, has never been abroad or spoken to foreigners. She still believes in a “bright future” for Russia, and her father is afraid to open her eyes… Dominika is a phenomenal ballerina who seems destined for the Bolshoi, but all her radiant plans come to ruin when a jealous rival breaks her foot during a test. And because there is no other possible occupation for a woman in Russia, her only option is to become a glorified prostitute spy at the Red Room Sparrow School, bankrolled by her Uncle Egorov, who himself is top brass in the security services.

But dear, sweet, totally-not-a-walking-cliché Dominika has no idea what lies in store for her during training: exploitation, violence, and torture to transform her into the perfect Russian spy. Because the best way to teach someone to love and serve the Motherland is to abuse them to the point of hating the Motherland. Go figure.

Dominika becomes the victim of profound indoctrination (she learns, for example, that all Americans are crass materialists ever-ready to denigrate the honor of Russia and Russians). But – and we see this twist coming a mile away – she falls in love with American spy Nate Nash and gets rid of everything she’s been taught. Loyalties are betrayed, secrets shared, sex had, Putin’s torso bared, blah blah blah et cetera.

Upon opening Red Sparrow, you’ll first notice its stylish language. But while prose certainly distinguishes Sparrow from standard spy novel fare (and believe me, I’m glad to see experimentation), it’s also, in editor-speak, “purple” – forced, unnatural, and overly descriptive, doing little to enhance the story. Readers likely won’t beg for a return to the somewhat utilitarian writing approach that characterizes the genre, but they might ask whether Matthews could’ve expressed the same ideas in a lot fewer words.

A quick perusal of the first chapter turns up run-ons, as well as sentences interrupted by a clause describing something completely different from the logical subject.

Nate helped MARBLE [the mole] take off his dark overcoat, turning it inside out as he pulled it off his arms, transformed into a light-colored coat of a different cut, stained and frayed at the sleeves and hem. (p. 9)

Is the subject of this sentence Nate or the coat? I’d wager the point is to convey that Nate made a disguise for MARBLE, not that he magicked himself into a lighter coat.

Here’s another line:

They walked wet-to-the-knee through the piney woods, peering through a night scope and counting paces until they came to the hollow stump and the burlap-wrapped brick, the owls in the branches congratulating them for finding the cache. (p. 25)

Something tells me those owls weren’t actually congratulating Nate and his men – more likely, they were pondering why the heck they’d been mentioned in this sentence at all.

Okay, one more:

His mind was a riptide of damage control battling the stirring of his passion for her.

The heck is this metaphor?!

And there’s no need to describe a residential street as “having apartment buildings on either side” – the term “residential” implies that in fact people do live there.

Matthews goes on to describe plateware, lighting, the fancy cologne a side character wears, furniture in rooms, an airport terminal containing shops and restaurants. But this reader would prefer that he not waste her time with research he did on trivial s**t, thanks. Now, one could avoid needless description by writing only enough to establish a strong sense of place and time, adding a flourish here and there if a scene calls for it…but it’s much more fun to pile on prose about cuisine to justify ending each chapter with a recipe – which, by the way, lacks ingredient amounts. Quite a shame, too – I desperately want to learn how to make borsch like an “old crone” running a soup kitchen in an alley “smelling of urine and vodka.”

Matthews hails from the Bell-de Villiers School of Multipage Expositional Backstories – a school which should’ve been closed long ago for its inability to produce solid characterization. As soon as a new character (even a minor one) appears, expect an infodump. To make matters worse, Matthews uses 3rd-person omniscient POV without restraint, yanking the reader back and forth between different characters’ heads on the same page, sometimes within the same paragraph or sentence. Expositing characters’ inner thoughts and motivations is supposed to demonstrate a constant battle of wits, I think. What it actually accomplishes is killing narrative tension and leaving little for the reader to discover. It’s too much, too soon.

An aside, but related: The heroine sees emotions as colors around people’s heads, and the colors are constantly described as if they mean something for the story. They don’t. In a scene where Uncle Vanya persuades Dominika to join the security services, Matthews details a halo of yellow (deceit) blooming around Vanya’s head. But readers can already tell Vanya bears ill intentions – not merely from dialogue, but from unsubtle prose that expositions the s**t out of scenes.

Overall, Sparrow’s contorted prose style points to a book that’s trying too hard to be literary. For a moment, you might think it’s succeeding, as protracted passages and metaphors occasionally approach poignancy. But then you encounter lines describing male characters as “humming with horny” or “rabbit-mad in his gluttony for Sonya’s pizda (p. 40)” and the thought that RS might be erudite vanishes faster than your interest in the turgid writing.

(You’ll notice I haven’t divulged much in the way of plot details. That’s because the plot is banal: double crosses, close calls, exotic locales, and mole-hunts. Not much in the way of logic holes [commendable!], but a few missteps and flat-out lies: for example, Dominika is not “drafted into the security services against her will”, as some editions of Sparrow claim on their back covers – she willingly agrees, and even suggests the division which she wants to join [the AVR]. And Dominika doesn’t turn traitor because of mistreatment at the hands of Sparrow School or steady disillusionment with the Russian state [either would’ve been logical] – she defects because she’s annoyed with her boss! The whole Sparrow School thing? Could’ve been tossed out without seriously impacting the plot. Moving on…)

Characterization is standard as far as spy thrillers go: an implausible protagonist surrounded by stock characters. Leading lady Dominika’s codename is “Diva”, but she’d be better off with the name Maria Surova. She’s introduced as a child-savant, later a prodigious dancer; fluent in three languages; beautiful beyond compare; possessing photographic memory; able to best trained assassins in close combat and read minds due to an ability to see emotions as colorful auras around people’s heads. Flawless in every way, except for that ages-old, certainly-not-an-afterthought weakness: “a temper.” The story bends and flows around her, with nearly every page (re)establishing how irresistibly sexy she is. And yet, for all the words spent on her, she’s extremely shallow.

Dominika has little room for character development. She comes prepackaged with all the tools of a model spy (good looks, mentalism, intensity, athleticism, manipulation skills) and all the hatred of Putin’s regime necessary to ensure eventual defection*. She’s described as having these traits even before she’s sent to Sparrow School, which undermines both her motivations for joining the Service and her reasoning for waiting so long to defect. Why does Dominika join the AVR if she already believes that the security organs and Putin are corrupt goons not acting in Russia’s best interests? How does she know what Russia’s best interests are/are not, if all she’s supposedly been fed up ‘til now is pro-Kremlin propaganda? Why doesn’t she learn, gradually, over training and maybe a few missions, that something is rotten in the state of Russia? Wouldn’t that make for a more powerful character turn?

Instead, what readers get is a heroine who goes through increasingly irritating cycles of emotion – first waffling between devotion to Russia and Putin, then hatred, later between pity for her CIA handler, then hatred. Dominika’s motivation is to continue for the sake of continuing – none of that pesky introspection here. At times she acts irrationally, unprofessionally, even childishly, and you wonder how she’s managed to avoid being offed thus far…or why you can’t just enter the story and put an end to things yourself. Save the enemy – and the reader – some time.

Side characters are afterthoughts – from the bland, forgettable Nate Nash to the kindly, wise, virtually interchangeable CIA men to Vladimir Vladimirovich himself, playing the villain from Central Casting. All Russians are monsters – more on that later.

Nate and Dominika’s romance – supposedly the story’s emotional linchpin – is yet another missed opportunity for development. While their affair has torrid sex, arguments about politics, and spy games aplenty, it lacks the chemistry, levity, and charm of genuine love. Nothing holds these two together besides sexual attraction. It’s understandable that distance would prevent Dominika and Nate from seeing each other often, but showing us even one or two moments of them holding hands in public, snuggling, or chatting about food and films would’ve fleshed them out and made their romance more believable. Heck, it even would’ve upped the stakes plotwise. Nate’s emotional turmoil would make more sense. Both leads would have more difficulty remaining professional when alone. And what if the SVR uncovered Dominika’s liaisons with Nate, and confronted her with it? Where might that have led the story?

I suppose a better question would be why I’m expending so much thought on lost alternatives.

Don’t worry, dear reader, we’re almost through. I have but two more issues to raise about Red Sparrow: stereotyping and objectification.

Going into this type of book expecting fair treatment of both the U.S. and Russia is a fool’s errand. But one would at least expect Sparrow not to sink to Patriot-esque caricature levels when describing supposedly powerful adversaries.

Check this. An American spy is capable, determined, and willing to do anything for his homeland and for the sake of his compatriots. If he makes a mistake, it’s because he didn’t know it was wrong, and only did it in a higher perspective. If his actions bring harm to others, he suffers too.

But Russian spies are ambitious and paranoid, blinded by glory, control, and a thirst for power. A rabble of thugs, scorpions, neanderthals, and “poisonous dwarves” (yes, actual descriptor) lurking in the shadows, waiting for innocents to bring under the Kremlin yoke. I bet they eat children too. And the vozhd’ himself beats an orphan behind closed doors every evening.

And of course they’re incompetent. (How has this Great Game gone on for so long?)

The only good Russians? The ones who turn against their homeland and spy for the U.S.A.

Matthews’ characters say on multiple occasions that the Cold War never ended. I guess the stereotyping never did either. There’s no middle ground. You’re either white or black. The best at what you do or utterly incompetent. You’re either good – or you’re Russian.

Red Sparrow’s political depiction of Russia itself is the usual dying bear/rusted tanks, murderous-police-state boilerplate, which oddly doesn’t mention a “disinformation machine” (again, this is set in the 2010s, YOU HAD TIME), but manages to add a few awful upgrades of its own. For it seems this time around, Putin’s Russia isn’t just like the Soviet Union, it IS the Soviet Union. Russians publish their opinions as samizdat while on the run from FSB goons (without advanced spying tech, driving beat-up lemons), or sink into morose cynicism, their will crushed by cast-iron bureaucracy. Dominika considers “denouncing” rival dancers for conspiring to break her foot (p. 42), and asks her parents if they’ve read “Putin’s article on anglo-zionism.” There’s no mention of globalism, russlish, media, celebrities, kreakly, de-offshorization, or frankly anything indicative of post-Soviet Russian life. But we do get katorga, and a journalist shot dead in an elevator.

All my criticism of RS could’ve been explained away (or reduced to “it’s a third-rate histfic thriller”) had Matthews chosen to set his story in ’50s Soviet Russia or something. The fact that he didn’t suggests to me that he believes it needs no changing – Russia is still “Stalinist” at heart.

Gotta have that eternal bogeyman! Even if it’s on tenuous factual ground, it increases book sales while attracting praise for being oh-so-relevant!

(It also drives mature reviewers to gouge out their eyes with pens. Not so good for critical acclaim, but probably still helps book sales.)

Last but not least, Sparrow has an objectification issue. The whole idea of “sexpionage” (spies specially trained to lure foreign nationals into compromising bedroom situations) is stupid, and I suspect it’s there for the author to realize his fantasies about Russian women. Dominika, despite being called The Best Spy the Program’s Ever Produced™ and possessing enough wit and mentalism to extract information effortlessly, must always resort to crude sex to get what she wants. Sparrow School doesn’t further the plot, but provides an excuse to show porn. Dominika’s beauty is mentioned frequently, in sometimes-odd places. At one point Nate and Dominika are fighting for their lives, and suddenly Nate starts admiring her butt and legs. Dominika mulls leaking details of state-sanctioned murder to the “opposition press”, and the exposition brings up her “Faberge-blue eyes and 95C bosom (p. 63)”! The heck does that have to do with anything?! Remove the sex scenes and unnecessary detail about her body and Sparrow could’ve been fifty pages shorter.

The novel often talks of Dominika’s “secret self”, which turns out to be hypersexual. If something’s nearby and male, she has to copulate with it. She has sex with a much older instructor at Sparrow School, for no other reason than she “senses” that’s what he wants from her.

Um, has this author ever interacted with a woman before? Like, a real one?

One can’t even say Dominika’s having sex because she’s empowered and wants to. Regardless of whether she’s working for the Russians or the Americans, she’s prisoner to the whims of the men around her. She has sex because she’s ordered to, or because she’s moody and has a vaguely defined “need.” Merely speaking about this makes me feel unclean. But like nearly everything else in Sparrow, it’s not novel. Western men have been fantasizing about hot Russian women for decades, and Dominika is merely one vivid fictional example.

500+ pages of novel and six pages of notes later, I still can’t determine whether reading Red Sparrow was worthwhile. Aside from almost-lucid prose and that ridiculous heroine, there’s little in Red Sparrow that hasn’t been attempted before, with much better results. It’s spy novel cliches, “insider knowledge” of tradecraft, stock characters, stereotypes, and sex, wrapped in prose which says little while convinced it’s saying a lot.

I might question the fairness of being this hard on something so clearly smelling of “first effort”, but no – I’m utterly unrepentant.

Unless you’re rabbit-mad in your gluttony for derivative spy thrillers (or just plain mad), better skip this one.

If the movie’s anything like its source material, then we’re in for some s**t.

(I believe this score was a foregone conclusion.)

Red Sparrow by Jason Matthews. Pub. 2014 by Pocket Books. Mass Market Paperback, 576 pages. ISBN13: 9781476764177.

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37 comments

  1. Two things:

    1. Regarding the excess of trivial shit, some of that I assume is just a bad writer resorting to padding. Some of it… is harder to explain. Stieg Larssen’s Millenium trilogy was full of crap like this – Lisbeth Salander would go down to the shops, and the reader would be treated to an exhaustive list of crap she bought. It’s not like this was a Chekov’s gun situation, none of her purchases were relevant to the story in any way, but Larssen had to list them all regardless. I’d put it down to the Nordic man’s love of boredom, but that may be too easy an answer. What people like this – Matthews and Larssen – is an editor who personally despises them and loves hurting their feelings.

    2. Does Dominika (honestly never heard of a Russian girl so named but hey) ever sleep with any other women? The endless sex scenes you describe make the book sound like an exercise in autogynephilia, and if there’s any girl-on-girl action in it I guarantee it’s exactly that.

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    • Yep. There’s a pointless lesbian encounter during the “Sparrow School” part. Though the main character (to my knowledge) is never identified as bi.

      On the pointless description count, more likely it’s for ambiance. Still no excuse for the editors not paring it down, though.

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      • That tears it then – this creep has warped his brain through chronic porn consumption and is getting off on imagining himself as a slutty Russian woman.

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  2. Too try-hardy indeed. I suppose the only reason RS got a movie is because of current geopolitics.

    Loyalties are betrayed, secrets shared, sex had, Putin’s torso bared, blah blah blah et cetera

    Thought we wouldn’t catch that, eh? Is that *really* what happens?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thought I was making that part up? Oh, you…

      President Putin was shirtless, his hairless chest slick, the veins in his arms popping. His hands were through the grips of two nylon suspension straps, anchored to an overhead bar. The President of All Russias leaned forward against the straps and, by extending his arms like Christ on the Cross, lowered himself face forward, nearly parallel to the mat, a foot off the floor. Shaking with exertion, he rasied himself up by bringing his arms together, then lowered himself, then up again. That little ulitka Zyuganov never took his eyes off Putin. A matter of seconds before he would be licking the sweat off his benefactor’s chest. (p. 503-504)

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      • “That little ulitka Zyuganov never took his eyes off Putin. A matter of seconds before he would be licking the sweat off his benefactor’s chest.”

        This is legitimately sick. Comrade gran-pa Zyu is not some snail!

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        • I see what you did there.

          Agh! I forgot to give the context! That Zyuganov ever-present at Putin’s workout sessions is not the Zyuganov We Know and Love (TM), but an invented standard-issue psychopathic torturer.

          I don’t know whether that revelation destroys the joke, enhances the joke, or makes things much, much worse.

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          • “That Zyuganov ever-present at Putin’s workout sessions is not the Zyuganov We Know and Love (TM), but an invented standard-issue psychopathic torturer.”
            When you need some “Russian” last name and not sure whether just adding “-ski” or “-ovich” will make it plausible (McCainski and O’Hanrahanovich were strangely rejected by the editor…) you must shamelessly borrow:

            – From Russian literature. Go ahead and name your generals, agents of KGB and heads of state “Pushkins”, “Gogols” or even “Smerdyakov” (all real examples)

            – From Russian past. Surely, there are still lots and lots of prominent Russians going by the name Kolchak, Vitte, Chikatilo (the last one was acutally used in… you will never guess where… Horror, horror…)

            – From Russian present. Last names of the politicians, stars, sportsmen (and women) are all fair game! Surely – the last names like Zhirinovsky, Zyuganov or Yavlinsky are INCREDIBLY common! Just like you can’t beat around the Bushes and not him a random Clinton, amirite?

            – Lazy Techniques when writing about Russia ™. Volume 4 (Klyukva Press)

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            • ‘Lazy Techniques when writing about Russia ™. Volume 4 (Klyukva Press)’

              Hm, yes. I’ll have to add that one to the list. Along with Standard-Issue Incompetent Russian Baddies and throwing in Russian words for “atmosphere”.

              Liked by 1 person

  3. “asks her parents if they’ve read “Putin’s article on anglo-zionism.””

    [Lytt rans away screaming]

    “had Matthews chosen to set his story in ’50s Soviet Russia.”

    Imaginary 50s

    “Russia is still Stalinist at heart”

    Ok, serious question time, J.T. How do you define “Stalinism”?

    “I suspect it’s there for the author to realize his fantasies about Russian women.”

    It is heresy, you know, to doubt the words of the Holy Inquisition, that succubi and incubi exist, trying to seduce good Catholics with their laschivious visage. Why, the good Brothers of the Ordo Democratis Liberalis see them all the time! The Adversary must send his minions to them because he knows, how valuable (and very, VERY chaste) are these brethren. For, verily, thou already wrote that:

    “Um, has this author ever interacted with a woman before? Like, a real one?”

    Surely you can not accuse the blessed brother of being unchaste and preoccupied in his thoughts with something sinful!

    P.S.

    “rabbit-mad in his gluttony for Sonya’s pizda”

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    • -re: Imaginary 50s and my definition of Stalinism.
      That’s what I meant: a cartoony version of the ’50s, the kind American writers like to extrapolate to all Soviet periods. As for me, I have no definition of “Stalinism” – it’s not my area of study. And even if it were, I likely still wouldn’t have the authority to quantify it as this or that. I’m at least open-minded enough to resist seeing it purely in black and white terms.

      Sorry if anything got lost in translation/editing.

      And no compensation from the State this time?

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      • “And no compensation from the State this time?”

        But, J.T.! What about all the snow we have been sending you this week?

        After a short brainstorming session, our Collective decided that you deserve the bonus for vrednost’. And given the fact that we have elections here soon, it is the most appropriate to award you with strawberries from the LIC “SovKhoz imeni Lenina” owned by a former LDPR, United Russia and now KPRF party member and presidential candidate Pavel Grudinin:


        ^Don’t worry – these berries will survive the travell!

        It is Grudinin, and not uncle Zyu who deserves to do iffy things to Putin in various fiction!

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        • It is Grudinin, and not uncle Zyu who deserves to do iffy things to Putin in various fiction!

          But was Grudinin influential around the time this book was written (circa 2010)?

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          • “But was Grudinin influential around the time this book was written (circa 2010)?”

            Wait.

            [,..]

            Thos book predates everything that transpired since 2013 onward? It’s a product of the blessed “Perezagruzka” time of Lil’ Dima’s Tenure?

            […]

            Ooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo!

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            • It’s a product of the blessed “Perezagruzka” time of Lil’ Dima’s Tenure?

              Yes, but unfortunately, Dimakins fell into Red Sparrow’s “Not Cruel Enough to Rule” category and was summarily executed.

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      • “As for me, I have no definition of “Stalinism” – it’s not my area of study. And even if it were, I likely still wouldn’t have the authority to quantify it as this or that. I’m at least open-minded enough to resist seeing it purely in black and white terms.”

        Yet you used this term with clearly negative connotations aka “totalitarian Hell on the Earth”, “Mordor”. That’s what a “Stalinism” for you, J.T.? Everyone is “oppressed”, billions millions are repressed (for nothing!), those who are “suffering” are the “best in This Country”? Stalinism for you is not a total liquidation of the illiteracy in enormous country? Not numerous new factories, universities, cities? Not a unique opportunity for the children of the yesterday’s peasants to reach to highest positions of the society by their own talent? Not the “Right to the Work”, no poverty, free healthcare and higher education? It is not the Victory in the War (“not thanks to, but despite of!” meme)?

        The ugly truth is from the total population of the USSR only 2.5% were repressed on “political” articles of the Criminal Code (not necessary shot). Of those 2.5% not everyone was innocent, for “political” articles included such things as espionage, treason, terrorism, banditry etc. OTOH, virtually every single family in the USSR had at least someone, who dies either on the frontlines or else during the Great Patriotic War. People now in Russia remember most vividly the latter, while in the West – the former. How do you explain that?

        J.T., how do you think, is everything they say about “Putin’s Russia” today, be they “think tankers”, members of the creative class or “Free and Independent Western Media”, about “suppression of the freedom”, “unbelievable impoverishment of the population”, about “mafia state”, “rabid nationalism and imperialism” etc, etc – is it true? You’ve wrote a lot of reviews on the books expressing certain doubt that Russia is/was as they claim. Why do you think that when the same (exactly the same) words, terms, accusation and slander used to describe a Russia of a different time period, then these liars and slanderers are telling the truth?

        The need to portray any Russia (“Eternal Russia”?) as Mordor is understandable. If you show that this is a wretched place, you immediately create an antipode to (yours) Shining Valinor of the West. By describing the antipodean people in the most negative way possible, you drive the point that they are Orks, while you, dear reader, are Elf. This blatant lie is good and soothing to the hobbits who read/watch/listen to these things. Here they are living in the holes in the ground because their thoughtful parents took a mortgage to build a home for themselves, but then the bank went belly up before the building was complete – only basement was constructed. So the generation of hobbits of the Today had to take a second mortgage in order to pay off the first one and to hire a construction crew to “finish” the building – that’s to make a “roof” in order to convert the basement into a “burrow”.

        These hobbits are in mental pain with very real and very cloudy prospects of the future. So it is with great joy they read about some far away land, where the people are living much, much worse. And the way the people are described don’t make these hobbits feel any sympathy and ask themselves “how can we help?”. No, by showing how despicable literally every singe or them Orks are, the good authors successfully drive the point, that “these are wrong, damaged, not normal creatures”. For, surely, no normal creature would have tolerated all this oppression or try to build a society, culture and country on a pattern that is so unlike the one in the Valinor!

        So – no mercy to them. When the time comes these hobbits will cheer and support a Final Solution for the Mordor. Because they are monsters, these Orks, and hobbits are good, generous, jolly folk. They never express any aggression – except for the Monsters, of course.

        And because poor, not so bright hobbits are in mental pain and sensing an uncertain future for themselves, they also are less inclined to think critically. They don’t like the reality around them. They might even suspect that what they read/watch/listen to might be untrue. They have all possible means to check the veracity of these claims, but… they don’t care. They want to be lied to. They want desperately these lies, this escapism this opium for the people. For the people who brought up thinking they can get anything they ever wont if they stomp their little feet, the Uncaring Bitch Universe is too much. So they consume opiatic literature, or they join the “Flat Earth Society” all across the globe – or they travel East to LARP a Caliphate with fatal result… They don’t travel East and find a target that would ease the pain of their senseless, uncertain existence closer at home. Most of the time, thankfully, it’s just kvetching and whining on the Net. Other times – it is not.

        P.S. Sorry for rant. Just the fecal volcanoes in the Blessed West had been working overtime lately.

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        • Rant is okay. This however, is not:

          Yet you used this term with clearly negative connotations aka “totalitarian Hell on the Earth”, “Mordor”. That’s what a “Stalinism” for you, J.T.? Everyone is “oppressed”, billions millions are repressed (for nothing!), those who are “suffering” are the “best in This Country”? Stalinism for you is not a total liquidation of the illiteracy in enormous country? […] J.T., how do you think, is everything they say about “Putin’s Russia” today, be they “think tankers”, members of the creative class or “Free and Independent Western Media”, about “suppression of the freedom”, “unbelievable impoverishment of the population”, about “mafia state”, “rabid nationalism and imperialism” etc, etc – is it true? You’ve wrote a lot of reviews on the books expressing certain doubt that Russia is/was as they claim. Why do you think that when the same (exactly the same) words, terms, accusation and slander used to describe a Russia of a different time period, then these liars and slanderers are telling the truth?

          Quite simple…I don’t. Matthews does.

          Would it help if I inserted quotation marks around “Stalinist” in that line of the review?

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          • “This however, is not”

            Please forgive me, J.T. I shouldn’t have written this, for it all appears as some sort of litany of accusations. I have no way to seeinside your brain so the only way for me to know what you think about this or that is by asking. So I asked. In the most wrong, torrential way, that might look like I don’t care for the answers. Actually – I do. Just you used a term which is overused and bears (in the West) clearly negative connotations.

            Frankly, I don’t know whether the knowledge of the Russian/Soviet history would be important for your future speciality. I’m biased – I think that history (any and all) is important to all people and should not be ignored. I’m not insisting on anything – it’s not my right or place to demand anything here.

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            • Answering the question whether Russia is “Stalinist at heart” – pretty much it is. Look at the polls be they by the handshakable Levada CENTer or elsewhere. Everyone admits that despite DECADES of the official anti-Stalinism (and anti-Sovietism of the past decades) the people, the Russians, view Iosif Vissarionovich (mostly) favorably. What, does it mean the people in Russia want shortages of goods (actually – they got that both under Gorbachev and Yeltsin) or violence on the streets (ditto)? Or that we want to “conquer” Europe? Because these people can not be normal if they want that, as any shy and conscientious person will tell you. Yet they want “Stalinism” – does it mean we are not normal… or that we want something else?

              Words have power. Loaded terms (loaded with something different) have power to blow minds and rend countries asunder. We communicate using words. How can we be understood correctly if we don’t agree on the meaning of the words?

              But, again – I’m not insisting on you changing anything. I was simply asking. Sorry once again.

              Like

            • Knowledge of Russian/Soviet history *is* important to my future specialty (anslator) – events don’t occur in a vacuum. As a student, I’m on my way to acquiring said knowledge. But I’m not there yet. And especially I have a gaping hole in my knowledge of Russia (USSR) 1924-1953. I’ve no particular stance on the era except default skepticism of mainstream claims. Just gonna stop referencing this -ism from now on, even if the review subject in question does everything in its power to point to it (or its bastardization).

              Anyway, let’s put this whole matter behind us. RS remains an awful book, and the latest reviews show the movie is middling…
              https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/red_sparrow

              Like

  4. “… [Dominika’s] only option is to become a [glorified prostitute] spy at the [Red Room] Sparrow School …”

    Ha! I saw what you did there!

    From Marvel.com, on Black Widow:

    Natasha Romanova, known by many aliases, is an expert spy, athlete, and assassin. Trained at a young age by the KGB’s infamous Red Room Academy, the Black Widow was formerly an enemy to the Avengers. She later became their ally after breaking out of the U.S.S.R.’s grasp, and also serves as a top S.H.I.E.L.D. agent.

    http://marvel.com/characters/6/black_widow

    Liked by 1 person

    • Except I can respect Black Widow. She’s a determined, competent heroine who can get the job done without resorting to “sexploitation.” (I’m not a big fan of Marvel comics, but I read the excellent Marjorie Liu run of the character. That’s my reference.) And the Red Room, if I recall correctly, didn’t train girls to be seductresses. But I needed to joke about how contrived this Dominika character is, so…

      Like

  5. A great job with the review and with the comments you did!

    …riptide of damage control battling…

    Was that possibly computer generated? Perhaps this book is a beta test of a computer augmented prose generator – run-on sentences, randomly changing topics, excessive detail, etc. I’m sort of semi-serious on this.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I’m with you all the way on the review, particularly the strange idea that today’s Russia is like the late Soviet era.

    In Matthews’ idea of contemporary Russia, a successful intelligence officer has an apartment where ‘The carpet was threadbare, the wallpaper faded and bubbled with age. A battered teapot on a single-element propane stove was too old to whistle. It was small and dingy, but a Moscow apartment not shared with relatives or work colleagues was still an inexpressible luxury’. Matthews is describing 1970s Soviet Moscow rather than the 21st century world in which his story is set.

    In Red Sparrow even the main SVR office in Helsinki consists of ‘plain wooden desks, set up in vaguely staggered rows. None of the desks had a terminal, but most had electric typewriters with odd lacquered turqoise covers sitting on small metal typing tables’. Ludicrous.

    There’s a couple of things from Red Sparrow that I highlighted in my own (as yet unpublished) review and you only mention in passing.

    First, the recipes. As you say, at the end of every chapter there’s a little recipe box explaining how to make some item of food consumed in that chapter. In an espionage thriller? Talk about genre confusion. By halfway through the book the reader is noting every damn bit of food eaten by a character, dreading the distracting and out-of-place recipe box at the end of the chapter.

    Second, the Russian-English dictionary approach to throwing in Russian words.“Do you intend that it should be a plovaya zapadnya, a honey trap?’ is a typical example. Red Sparrow begins to read like a poorly transliterated ‘teach yourself Russian’ book. “The target is zastenchivyj, timid, shy”, Matthews writes, quoting the dictionary. And so on, all the way through.

    I’ve a double confession to make.

    I went to watch the movie last week. Horrible. A perfunctory run through the book, to make as much time as possible for lingering on the ludicrous ‘Sparrow School’.

    And I’ve just bought the third book in the series. Not sure why.

    Liked by 1 person

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