I seem to be on a bit of a Cold War kick as of late, so requesting Orphan, Agent, Prima, Pawn via NetGalley happened entirely on a whim. I didn’t even realize that this was the last book in the Dukovskaya series until the authors notes at the end, and I have to say that it was a truly captivating read. Kiem creates an immersive experience that can be enjoyed by teen and adult readers alike, and especially by those who love ballet Cold War era Russia!
Title: Orphan, Agent, Prima, Pawn
Author: Elizabeth Kiem
Publisher: Soho Teen
Publication Date: August 22, 2017
Genre: Fiction, Literary Fiction, Historical Fiction, Mystery, Thriller
Themes: Cold War, Espionage, Orphans, Family, Spies, Ballet
Features: Character guide, glossary of terms, recommended reading
My Rating: 4/ 5
The year is 1958, and sixteen-year-old Svetlana is stuck in a Moscow orphanage designated for the unwanted children of Stalin’s enemies. Ballet is her obsession and salvation, her only hope at shedding a tainted family past. Sveta’s dream is to make a new life as a dancer.
Her dream comes true: she’s invited to join The Bolshoi Ballet, whose power as a symbol of Soviet prowess is unmatched—except perhaps by the dreaded KGB secret police. Sveta is stunned when officers show up at her door. Inexplicably, they know about a fainting spell she once had: a trance she slipped into. Something like a vision.
Some very powerful people believe Sveta is capable of serving the regime as much more than a dancer. They want to enlist her against the West as a psychic spy. She must explore this other talent if she is to erase the sins of her family, if she is to dance on the world stage for the Motherland—if she is to survive.
Orphan, Agent, Prima, Pawn has a lot going for it from the integration of Russian words and phrases to the incorporation of meticulously researched historical fact, and from the beautiful imagery to a complicated love story that could have entertained on it’s own. But what I love the most about this book is how strong and prominent the female characters are – very rarely do we see a damsel in distress, and the only mention of hormones comes from the protagonist herself in a completely understandable situation. While I absolutely loved this aspect of the book, I think it’s important to acknowledge that there may a narrower audience of readers than some other YA espionage reads, but that’s absolutely ok!
I really enjoyed how the narrative was divided into four distinct sections, which really gave a sense of organic growth and development and helped to establish Svetlana’s degree of involvement with the KGB. It mirrored nicely the rise and fall of the Soviet leaders mentioned throughout the text, and didn’t downplay the harsh realities and endings that faced many who existed behind the iron curtain. The interweaving of memory and the story within a story created some beautifully emotional, as well as exceptionally effective, transitions between periods. In this was, time jumps of several years and many major events seemed very natural and I was never left feeling like there was a hole in the plot.
I struggled bit, however, with the love triangle between Svetlana, Gosha, and Viktor. Admittedly, it did get a little bit more exciting at the very end, but I felt that the good boy/ bad boy/ prima ballerina thing has been done a few too many times. But, and here’s the big thing, it’s still fun and will very likely not be met with the same degree of ‘oh that’s cliche’ from the intended target audience! And, truth be told, given that the text is filled with echoes of classical ballets such as Swan Lake, The Firebird, and Romeo and Juliet the choice of this particular plot device is completely understandable.
Now, onto the asymmetrical warfare aspects of the book – I loved this concept! At first I did a little double take, but I ended up really enjoying the twist that it put on the Cold War as perceived through pop culture. It was interesting to watch how perceptions of not only self, but also actions, shifted and developed as Svetlana matured. Despite significant fictional liberties being taken, the ability to connect to a universal mind or tap into others memories and feelings really forces introspection and the consideration of multiple narratives – which I think are fantastic elements in YA reads! And seriously, who doesn’t love the idea that dance can course of history…
I really enjoyed this book and can’t wait for it to hit the shelves later in August as I have a whole host of little ballerinas that I think will absolutely love it! I loved Orphan, Agent, Prima, Pawn as a stand alone text as it was easy to follow, but I have no doubts that I will be tracking down the first two texts in the series ASAP. If you love Ballet, the Cold War, and the KGB and their alternative warfare this might just be the book for you!
Many thanks to Elizabeth Kiem and Soho Teen for providing an advanced copy via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.