Does a spy thriller written by a former CIA officer offer an unbiased view of the world of espionage? Who knows, but it seems the answer may be both yes and no.
Former CIA spook and burgeoning author Jason Matthews has an amazing feel for the insider lingo and relentless intrigue of the spy’s life. Palace of Treason, the second book in his series (following his debut, Red Sparrow), is a harrowing look into the lives of spies, including a CIA rookie named Nate and a gorgeous Russian intelligence operative named Dominika Egorova, who lives the precarious existence of a double agent, spying for the U.S. while maintaining her Russian cover.
On the other hand, this wealth of technical knowledge—and a breathtaking sense that the author’s been out in the field himself—at times produces an overdone, good-guy-bad-guy inflection that can be off-putting. In Matthews’ world, nearly all Russians are self-serving, smug and boorish, while the white hats in the CIA are “smooth and professional . . . strong and reliable.” In this day and age it’s hard to believe that the double-dealing, crafty self-interest and sadism are so completely one-sided, and this tendency shadows what is an otherwise riveting narrative.
Matthews’ intricate plot follows Dominika the mole as she seeks to undermine and botch Russia’s efforts to encourage Iran’s nuclear enrichment program. She passes critical information to the CIA, always a half step away from discovery—there’s also an enemy mole operating inside the CIA who’s about to unmask and destroy Dominika, and each page brings that agent one move closer to proving her a traitor to Mother Russia.
Nate and Dominika maintain a hot love affair, adding to the tension and possibility that either may make a mission-destroying decision. The book offers up other, stranger bedfellows as well. Palace contains marvelous descriptions of murky, offbeat characters, as well as a disconcerting central role for Vladimir Putin that seems misplaced in this narrative full of otherwise fictional types.
This is stay-up-all-night reading, and we’re pummeled by hair-trigger actions on every page. There’s a striking sense that no one seems to win for long. It’s a world in which victories and setbacks follow each other hard and fast, in a game where both missions and lives are destroyed in an instant.