Book Review: The Kremlin’s Candidate — Jason Matthews

The Kremlin’s Candidate, the least sloggy entry in the Red Sparrow series, brings things to a head in a way that could either end the series or leave it open for more. It’s taken a lot of deaths, a lot of breasts, and a lot of recipes to get this far. It’s unlikely that you’re going to see this story in movie form anytime soon, so soak in The Kremlin’s Candidate in prose form if you want to find out how Jennifer Lawrence’s overtly sexy spy winds up.

Former sexpionage agent and career CIA informant Dominika Egorova is on her way to becoming Director of Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR). When she learns of a Kremlin plot to install a mole in the highest echelons of the CIA, she must balance her need to impress President Putin against an urgent race to uncover the mole before her own cover can be blown.

It would be easy to accuse Jason Matthews of having written the same novel three times, because he did: a venal woman is the American mole again (but this time she’s a secret lesbian; the fact that this can be held against her in the American service is an incredibly black mark that is never really judged as a negative policy, and Matthews heavily implies that she’s a monstrous pervert with daddy issues), women are killed needlessly in brutal fashion, Dominika’s breasts are repeatedly described, and every chapter ends with a recipe.

Yet The Kremlin’s Candidate indicates room for growth: CIA man – and Dominika’s constant lover – Nate Nash is largely absent for much of the book, and it thrives without him. The moment he shows up he immediately has needless sex with someone, because rampant unprofessionalism obviously turns someone on, be it Matthews, or his editors. Ill-advised consensual liaisons that could easily be avoided litter these pages and they make no sense either operationally or erotically. The Kremlin’s Candidate is a horny book, but its eroticism does not really translate to the reader.

Matthews becomes an indiscriminate killer, often dropping characters that you could legitimately have felt warmly towards. He does the same thing he did twice before, losing the thread of the novel for a long time before remembering that he has a title to fulfil, but outside of the sex and an extended detour through Australian slang (which is, to be fair, accurately rendered), it’s not a waste. The Kremlin’s Candidate is never breathtaking or compulsive reading, but it’s also never boring. It is written with the confidence of a man who knows that he can get away with more out of loyalty from readers who have made it this far.

Given Matthews’ obvious political leanings and his feelings about a president who is probably Obama, it would be fascinating to see what a spy novel written by him in an era of significantly different relations between the USA and Russia. From the outside it feels rich to read Dominika complain of the huge gap between Russia’s haves and have-nots and the gross corruption of its oligarchy; has Matthews not seen America for almost its entire history?

In the end, the Red Sparrow series turned out to be a bizarre spies and sex power fantasy that posits that only a handful of people in the CIA should have any power or influence in the world at large, because progressives and politicians and Russians are ruining it for the people who just want to travel the world, sample local cuisines, and kill targets without prejudice. The Kremlin’s Candidate is messy in a good way, and a relatively strong note to end a silly trilogy on.

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