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Red Widow by Alma Katsu

Alma Katsu typically writes horror novels, so imagine my surprise when I find out that her latest novel, Red Widow, is a spy thriller. Not only that but she used her 35 years as a spy/analyst in the CIA as fodder. With that type of experience, I had high hopes for this look at modern-day spycraft. Unfortunately, much like her last horror novel, I found Red Widow a bit of a slog.

I imagine that some of my disappointment with Red Widow stems from the fact that I pretty much guessed the plot a quarter of the way in. This meant that there was nothing about it that was a surprise, which is not exactly what you want when you are reading a spy novel. I mean, spying is all about keeping secrets and things not being what they seem. I don’t want the secrets too easy to discern.

Also, I find it rather frustrating that Russia remains the Big Bad Enemy in the spy world. I mean, sure, Putin is an evil man who essentially brought Russia back being ruled by a Tzar, but is he really the biggest threat the country faces? I struggle with this. Yes, there is some mention of China and cyber warfare in general, but the focus of Red Widow is strictly Russia and Russian double agents. It all feels more 1980s and not at all present day.

Plus the grey line between “right” and “wrong” is so very flexible depending on the situation and the people involved. One situation involving an agent may be morally reprehensible and forbidden by the powers that be, and yet the very same situation involving a different agent will see that agent receiving accolades for that same action. I get that the world of spying changes every minute of every day based on new information, but holy hell. At least pick a moral yardstick and consistently use it.

For what it is worth, Lyndsey is pretty tough as an agent. She has the thick skin necessary for working in a male-dominated workplace. Plus, she has the smarts to go toe-to-toe with any of her fellow analysts. She does a lot of hand-wringing about her previous assignment and how she left it, which is annoying. When she focuses on the task assigned to her, the story picks up speed and interest. Unfortunately, she spends as much time focused on the task as she does on her long-term situation.

Red Widow surprised me in the rather negative image of the CIA Ms. Katsu paints. She makes a point to emphasize the hypocrisy of its leaders, the ongoing silos in which the analysts continue to work, and the continuous power struggles among the analysts as they use their access to information to get ahead of their counterparts. She also mocks the CIA’s inability to play by its own rules. I wasn’t expecting this at all given her experience.

This is the fourth Katsu novel I have read, and I will admit to only liking two of them. The most recent of her novels left me disappointed because they were missing the magic of her previous novels. Red Widow takes it one step further by being predictable and tired in its rehashing of the Russia/US enmity that made up every spy novel from the 1970s and 80s…and 90s. Perhaps my expectations were too high for someone with thirty-plus years of experience working at the CIA herself, but Red Widow is not at all what I expected or wanted in a modern-day spycraft novel.

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