For those who enjoyed Jason Matthew’s first espionage thriller, RED SPARROW, his second venture in this genre is as exceptional as the first. Matthews, a veteran of thirty three years in the CIA as a Chief of Station, a clandestine operative collecting national intelligence, a recruiter in many dangerous regions of the world, and many other roles has overcome the problem of following a successful first novel, with a second, PALACE OF TREASON, that in many ways is more interesting and presented in greater depth than the first. Many of the characters of RED SPARROW reappear; Simon Benford, a CIA veteran who controls all counter intelligence operations; Nathaniel Nash, the CIA covert operative and his Chief of Station Tom Forsythe, and his deputy Marty Gable; Dominika Egorova, a Russian trained “sparrow,” one who excels in the martial and sexual arts, and is a synesthete, a talent that allows a person to see auras around a person’s head that “allow them to read their passion, treachery, fear or deception;” Alexei Zyuganov, the Chief of Russian Counter Intelligence, Department of Service Line KR, a psychotic sadist who is jealous of Egorova; and Vladimir Putin, who plays a much larger role in PALACE OF TREASON.
There are many new characters in Matthews’ latest effort and they enhance the plot line and evolve as principle players as the story unfolds. We are presented with a new handler for Dominika, a rookie agent, Hannah Archer who is exceptional in her spy craft, but also becomes part of an interesting love triangle; and Yevgeny Pletnev, a deputy to Zyuganov who succumbs to the wiles of a red sparrow. The novel begins with the recruitment of Parvis Jamshidi, an Iranian physicist and expert in centrifugal isotope separation. Both the CIA and Russian SVR are interested in him and learn greater details of Iran’s nuclear program. For Russia it is seen as an opportunity for Putin’s kleptocracy to assist the Iranian program as a means of getting back at the United States, and as a bonus siphon off millions of rubles from any transaction. For the United States, a plan is instituted to sabotage a German W. Petrs seismic isolation floor that would cause a major explosion, thus setting back the Iranian goal of acquiring nuclear weapons by at least five years. In developing this story, Matthews employs a major secondary plot involving a disgruntled CIA bureaucrat, Sebastian Angevine, an Assistant Deputy for Military Affairs who is passed over for a major promotion, who believes in a lifestyle that his government salary will not support. Angevine takes the initiative in becoming TRITON, a Russian operative who is a threat to the Iranian operation and Dominika, who is imbedded inside the Kremlin as an American agent.
Matthews’ expertise in spy craft is without question. His details of surveillance and counter surveillance techniques are remarkable in their intricacy and realism. Through the experiences of Hannah Archer, Matthews provides an amazing description of how an operative is trained in surveillance techniques that no other author has attempted. The reader feels as if they are in the “cross hairs” of an operative trying to remain “black” and away from their pursuers. He takes the reader through the streets of Moscow, Washington, and Athens as operatives try to meet and practice their tradecraft. Through the eyes of Sebastien Angevine we see an individual on the “inside” of the CIA try to develop a strategy to offer themselves to Moscow. Angevine, a former NCIS polygrapher is fully cognizant of the approaches made by Pollard, Ames, Hanssen, and Walker, and how they became sloppy and were exposed. He develops sophisticated techniques to avoid their mistakes and will become a very effective mole. An underlying theme that Matthews pursues is the evolution of CIA and SVR espionage practices. Especially interesting are the changes in interrogation techniques employed by the Russian SVR as compared to old KGB practices. Matthews provides details of how the new SVR goes about its craft, and contrasts it with KGB methods. The reader is provided a unique window into spy tradecraft as it has changed from a lesser technological Cold War era, to the enhanced technological sophistication of today. The “Putinization” of Russian intelligence is very clear, as all operatives fear making a mistake that could embarrass the Russian President and the consequences for their careers and probably their lives.
If you think you might be interested in a novel that presents chilling scenes that feature a psychotic torturer/executioner and his protégé, two agents deeply in love separated by the deep cover of their respective intelligence services, a megalomaniac who is hell bent in restoring his nation to the preeminent position it held over two decades ago, bureaucratic incompetence at its worst, modern spy craft and the application of its many techniques, and a well written and well thought plot, then PALACE OF TREASON is for you. The narrative will keep you interested until the last paragraph and I won’t let you in on the ending, but parts of it may not be that farfetched.