I’ve been plugging my way through the Red Sparrow trilogy by Jason Mathews and now I’m at the last book — boy is that apparent. It reads like a last book. Like he’s run out of ways to convey his story.
And before I start trashing another author from my glass house, my tiny, poorly Windexed, glass house, I’ll say openly that Matthews has more good books in him and ending this series here is probably to his benefit.
The first book in the series was a fun espionage tale topped with engrossing depictions of tradecraft, well-structured fight scenes, and a nice bit of romance. The second was more. And more is always better… More gadgets, more fights, more romance, more locations, more, more; come on Mathews.
It’s one of the most difficult parts of writing a book (perhaps more difficult than any other medium) that the audience gets a long time to pick the brains of the author. If you make a movie the audience has about two hours to decipher your methodology and after that you’ve about three or so years to learn new tricks before making the sequel. A yearly stand-up comedy special clocks in at an hour of content a year. A decent book’ll give the audience ten plus hours to get acquainted with your style.
Think of it this way, try and recall the details of your last conversation with another person. How long was that conversation? Did you ever give the same reaction twice? Is your natural surprised response to open our eyes slightly and say Wow? Do you think you could be conscious of that and still act naturally?
That’s how it is fretting over your style as a writer. How many times have I begun a sentence with And? How many times has this character replied to a dangerous situation with a dismissive shrug and gone on to bumble their way through in Mr. Magoo fashion? Is seeing these two characters quarrel over their relationship getting long in the tooth?
At a certain point the prose feels like a series of cutouts slapped together.
To avoid this phenomena it helps to separate the story into clear acts where the primary goals change. Act one introduces characters and structure for overarching conflict. Act two brings characters together in comedic, tense, romantic scenarios and them dealing with the central conflict. Act three brings all these elements to a head and ties up some loose ends while leaving others primed for the sequel.
This works well for one book. When it’s repeated three times with minimal alteration the story becomes paper thin. Scenes aren’t tense when you know how the author establishes, builds, and ultimately resolves the conflicts. You know who’s gonna die and who’s gonna survive resulting in the early action scene in act one where our female spy protagonist faces off against random street thugs being dry. Reading into it we know this is an excuse to establish or reestablish her hand to hand fighting prowess.
Mathew’s compensates for this slightly by having her damage some vital communications equipment in one book and earn the trust of a corruptible nuclear scientist in another but these things are small stepping stones in each story and interchangeable as the plot requires. The lost potential here is in how the protagonist reacts to the violence she exerts on others.
She could be calmer and more calculated as the series progresses. She could be blind to her own fondness for violence and the adrenaline rush it gives (which is an actual issue with spies and special forces soldiers never fully reacclimating to the boredom of normal civilian existence). Heck, she could make her shopping list while breaking a guy’s trachea.
Then we have to sit through the new friend she’s made wherever she’s currently working and see her die. The first time it happens it’s a push over the edge to for her to start spying against her homeland of Russia. What is it the second and third times other than reminders that the bad guys are the bad guys because they hurt someone the good girl likes?
If she reacts every time with the same anger then the emotional resonance plummets. What if by the third time this happens the spy is numb to the loss? What if she’s built this up as a natural defense mechanism to this soul crushing consequence of her work? The tragedy could be just another straw on the camel’s back until one little thing drives her crazy. It’d be something different.
Then there comes the evil sadist Special Forces soldier or torturer, or both, antagonist who plots to eliminate our female lead in all three books. Then there enters the mole in the U.S. Military or Intelligence Services. Here’s the tit for tat opposing mole inside the Russian Intelligence Services. The nerdy, social awkward tech guys who develop some American spy gear. The superior Russian officer who plots to sabotage the protagonist’s mission so they won’t be upstaged by a woman. The CIA officers and associates who don’t play by the rules but they get results.
Here’s a brief suggestion to him: Instead of having all the big muckidy mucks of the CIA be too gruff for politics and getting in trouble for speaking their mind but damned if they aren’t just so good at their jobs and only if they were left alone from government intervention by Liberal Arts college graduates; how about one of them is good at the political side of the game? How about he knows how to play off the opposing governmental agencies and placate and intimidate and coerce others into leaving the CIA men alone and affording them the opportunity to act as freely as they complain they want to?
Of course the answer to an untrained author is if the good guys were given every opportunity and still made any mistakes (which are necessary for the plot to advance and build narrative stakes) then they’ve no one to blame but themselves and that’s difficult to write while still making them seem awesome.
Therefore, their plans repeatedly fail due to the actions of others in their own government or incompetent men in their own service or the possible jealous Russian official. So when I read about the bumbling Director of Moscow and how he really wants to know about a case the better CIA agents want him to stay away from my first reaction is “How’s he gonna screw this up?” All his continuing frustrations afterwards don’t give any inclination as to how and I’m just calling out, “I get it. Move on with the plot already.”
But every book has the same pacing leading to the same expectations and diminishing returns.
I think Matthews feels this pressure because he’s starting to use a lot more painful and kitsch writing elements. (Something I used to do a bunch) — By the third book he takes a lot of time to describe the name brand clothes and jewelry characters have, the nice furniture in picturesque villas where characters tryst, the tailored suits and fancy dresses and expensive food and alcohol.
If there’s one thing I learned from American Psycho it’s that listing off a bunch of expensive stuff doesn’t make me ooh and aah myself into dumb agreeability.
Also – and this is what lead me to create this piece – Matthews breaks the fourth wall constantly by the third book with chapter or partial chapter ending “Little did they know” stingers. I want to jam a finger down my throat with how badly they take me out of the story. The fact that the two spies in their romance break a wicker patio chair and bump themselves up a tad is good foreshadowing which doesn’t need, “the gods on Mount Olympus looking down from above the alluvial plan of Thessaly might have said this was a portent of things to come.”
And that’s what it all lead to — broken engagement. If I’m wondering where the ride goes, I’m enjoying myself. If I know where it goes and basically how it’ll get there then my critic sensor lights up and I’m piecing together the subtleties and scoffing at the obvious road signs.
The second and third books read like a template Mathews came up with and can’t fight his way out of. It smells of his personal politics sneering at strawmen of people he had to deal with his past career as a CIA operator. It contributed to the first book amazingly but by the third it feels like an old elephant trumpeting at shadows of an unconcluded war, unaware of the brush animals snickering at its limp.
But in his first book is a good writer and in the man is the ability to adapt.
To tell Matthews anything above what I’ve already said, ignore my facetiousness, write you next book free and clear of my criticisms here. And if you want to do that, may I suggest a one-off book where you can play around with such aspects as the plot rhythm and characters and settings. Perhaps corporate espionage?
Lower, not unbelievable if realized, stakes. Instead of the torture death of the protagonists starting at book one and ramping up from there, perhaps there’s a possible ten to fifteen year prison sentence for the main character. The clashing governmental agencies of the trilogy could instead be clashing chairmen of the board. The main character could have a moral grey streak and the need to justify his actions to himself.
Back of the Book Sell: Corrupt Senator Bill Watts has leaked the existence of military contractor TEXET’s next generation of destructive kinetic orbital strike technology to a rival contractor. Now they seek to steal the multi-billion-dollar weapon with the aid of the greatest actor in corporate espionage history — Luke Gallows. Armed with seamlessly invisible tools of his trade, decades of honed techniques, and a perfect lie, Luke aims for the biggest score in US history. But faced with a lethally beautiful counter agent, has Luke gotten himself into more than one man can handle?
At this point I’m writing my own story for myself so I’ll stop here.
Matthews can do wonderful things with his writing I’m certain. But, the subject matter of his Red Sparrow trilogy got stale fast. Give me something I haven’t seen from you before. I ask myself that every time I write and when I manage to do it it’s a brain pulsing thrill. I want everyone to know that feeling, at least once. Go for it.