Title: Palace of Treason
Author: Jason Matthews
Matthews, Jason (2015). Palace of Treason. New York: Scribner
PS3613.A8484 P35 2015
- “From the bestselling, Edgar Award-winning author of the “terrifically good” (The New York Times) Red Sparrow, a compulsively readable new novel about star-crossed Russian agent Dominika Egorova and CIA’s Nate Nash in a desperate race to the finish. Captain Dominika Egorova of the Russian Intelligence Service (SVR) has returned from the West to Moscow. She despises the men she serves, the oligarchs, and crooks, and thugs of Putin’s Russia. What no one knows is that Dominika is working for the CIA as Washington’s most sensitive penetration of SVR and the Kremlin. As she expertly dodges exposure, Dominika deals with a murderously psychotic boss; survives an Iranian assassination attempt; escapes a counterintelligence ambush; rescues an arrested agent and exfiltrates him out of Russia; and has a chilling midnight conversation in her nightgown with President Putin. Complicating these risks is the fact that Dominika is in love with her CIA handler, Nate Nash, and their lust is as dangerous as committing espionage in Moscow. And when a mole in the SVR finds Dominika’s name on a restricted list of sources, it is a virtual death sentence… Just as fast-paced, heart-pounding, and action-packed as Red Sparrow, Jason Matthews’s second novel confirms he is “an insider’s insider…and a masterful storyteller” (Vince Flynn, #1 New York Times bestselling author)”– Provided by publisher.
Date Posted: April 17, 2017
Reviewed by Adam LeBormay
Red Sparrow,” Jason Matthews’s debut thriller, is a challenging act to follow. Lavished with deserved praise, it introduced Dominika Egorova, of the Russian Intelligence Service, one of the most complex and compelling heroines to grace the espionage genre. Brave, beautiful and deadly, Egorova is a synesthete, who sees a halo of color above the heads of those around her, and a graduate of the Sparrow School, where female agents are taught advanced sexual techniques as an aid to seduction and recruitment.
Palace of Treason, the sequel to Red Sparrow, does not disappoint. The book is enthralling. Matthews deftly weaves in enough back story to hook both new readers and those returning. Enraged by the plundering of her country, Egorova is now one of the C.I.A.’s highest placed moles in the Kremlin. There she eventually catches the eye of President Vladimir V. Putin himself (blue halo pulsing), with eyebrow-raising results. But Egorova is in love with her C.I.A. handler, Nathaniel Nash, with whom she makes love “against the rules, against good sense, flaunting every tenet of security.”
That Matthews, who served in the C.I.A. for 33 years, knows the world of espionage and its darkest corners is never in doubt. Palace of Treason shimmers with authenticity. When Hannah Archer, a trainee C.I.A. officer, is trying to lose teams of watchers, she describes the “tingling on her arms and the backs of her hands, how the air felt cool on her neck when the hairs stood on end, when she felt the coverage before she saw it and began to count the cars, filing away the faces.”
The villains too are richly drawn, none more than Alexei Zyuganov, a psychopathic torturer-bureaucrat, and his protégée, Eva Buchina. Both are experts in chernaya rabota, black work. The scenes of them on the job are beyond chilling. When Zyuganov and Buchina barge in on a meeting between Madeleine Didier, the Moscow station chief of the French foreign intelligence service, and a Russian source, the two French security guards are killed within 10 seconds, the Russian soon after. The mission is completed within four minutes. Madame Didier is hanged from a door frame, “to complete the horror, to violate the gentleman’s agreement among spies and to send an unambiguous message back to the French.”
Whether in Vienna, Moscow or Washington, Matthews’s scene-setting is superb, and he has a fine eye for telling details. The Russian cooks in the American embassy cafeteria “managed to mangle most of the American items on the menu with the addition of inexplicable ingredients—pickle relish in the lasagna or blanched walnuts in the mac and cheese,” but they make a delicious pastrami sandwich “rich with cheese and scallions and vinegary coleslaw.” Matthews also has the courage to kill off one of the book’s most sympathetic characters, thus drawing the reader further into the lives of those who remain.
Yet Palace of Treason suffers from its author’s all too obvious prejudices. Almost every character working for the C.I.A. (apart from a traitor) is a wry, smart-mouthed, tough but tender, reliable stand-up kind of guy or girl. Almost every Russian (apart from Dominika and another C.I.A. asset) is venal, corrupt, untrustworthy and brutal. Matthews has sympathy for Russia’s culture but little for its people. Sometimes the tone is almost sneering, as when he describes Russian women with “clotted foundation on their collars and salt rings under the arms of their blouses.”
A more nuanced portrayal of Langley’s spymasters and their Russian opponents would only have added to the book’s verisimilitude. As the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on the C.I.A., released in December 2014, showed quite clearly, the cellars of the Lubyanka have no monopoly on brutality.
 Adam LeBormay, “Palace of Treason, by Jason Matthews,” New York Times Sunday Book Review (May 26, 2015,
 Matthews, Jason (2013). Red Sparrow: A Novel. New York: Scribner. Adam LeBor’s latest thriller is The Washington Stratagem. A version of this review appears in print on May 31, 2015, on Page BR35 of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: “Double Agenda.”