The Kremlin’s Candidate – Jason Matthews
Interesting timing, with this coming out right around the same time as the movie adaptation of Red Sparrow, the first book in the trilogy it completes. Matthews has been lauded by folks who know a lot more than me as an author who can combine good spy novel plot with offering realistic tradecraft, something he allegedly knows a lot about since he spent most of his adult life in the CIA. I have to take people’s word for that; this may surprise you but I am not a spy. Then again, would I tell you if I was?

Anyway, the series is centered on Dominika Egorova, a former ballerina who was trained in Russia’s notorious Red Sparrow school, where women are taught to use their sexuality to gain power over foreign agents. In the first book she fell in love with, and was recruited by, an American agent that she was sent to recruit. Her motivation has been her love of her home country and her anger at what Vladimir Putin and his cronies were doing to it.

By book three Egorova is on the verge of taking over the Russian foreign intelligence service, the SVR. As she gains more access that can be of immeasurable value to her American counterparts she also faces the biggest threat of her career. After the Putin orders the secret assassination of the CIA director, the Russians are working to have a Navy admiral, who Egorova helped to recruit for the Russians years earlier, installed as the new director. Should this admiral be confirmed, Putin would know within hours that Egorova was working for the Americans.

All this leads to a rather entertaining and satisfying conclusion.

Unfortunately getting there is a bit of a mess. For starters, Matthews infuses his books with lots of sex. His descriptions of those acts get more and more cringeworthy the more he has to write. I found many of these scenes to be sexist and cliched. Others were just awkward to read. But I tend to think the less you write about sex scenes the better; let the reader’s imagination fill in details. So other readers may enjoy his saucy bits.

I also found most of the first half of the book difficult to read. It seemed to me like Matthews was working too hard to build up intrigue for the closing quarter or so. There are several B plot lines that don’t add a whole lot to the story other than filling pages. And I found his insertion of politics distracting. Often in spy novels there are vague references to contemporary politics, usually just added to offer a sense of place and time. At several points through the book I would say “Oh come on!” at political details that were both ridiculous and unnecessary to the book’s momentum.

Overall this is a good series. But the third volume is a bit of a disappointment. I have not heard whether Matthews plans on continuing the series; it’s doubtful as several important characters did not survive this entry. But if a fourth book does appear, I doubt I will read it.