A YA political thriller set in 1963 Cold War Russia, with a paranormal slant. What’s not to love? (Well, a couple of things actually, but not enough to ruin my enjoyment of the novel).
Yulia is a ration rat, a teenager who lives by her wits in the black market, struggling to support and care for her family in Communist Russia. They live clandestinely with her aunt and cousin, stretching the two rations to feed five. Her brother has mental challenges, her mother is a scientist in hiding, and her father left the family years before. Yulia has a few secrets of her own, ones that can never be known. One, her family is former Party but is now on the run from the KGB. Two, she has psychic powers. She can read others’ thoughts just by touch, and she uses that to her advantage on the black market. But it would be dangerous if either secret was discovered.
Russia is in the middle of the space race with the Americans, and so far have beaten them every step of the way. But someone is selling the blueprints of their top-secret program to their adversaries, and they need to find out who and fast. The KGB has been working to develop a team of psychic spies since the Great Patriotic War and recruits a new company of powerful teens to track the traitor.
Yulia’s secrets have been discovered by those with powers stronger than her own. Can she play this new game long enough to escape with her family?
This is a book I enjoyed despite its issues.
As with any spy novel, I spent the entire story wondering which character can be trusted, and which are the deceivers. And this can include the main character, Yulia. Just because the story is told from her point of view, from inside her head, does not make her a trustworthy character. She herself wasn’t always sure what was going on in her own mind. And as the second generation of psychic spies, the mistrust is already well-ingrained in her team.
I quite like the cast of characters. Each has a specific power and personality and quirks, ranging from the handsome bad boy Sergei to twisted true believer Masha to evil mind-scrubbing Rostov. Lara can see the paths and choices in the future, while Valentin can cast a glamour and twist opinion, controlling his subject’s thoughts. And all had their own reasons for playing the game, whether it was for power or a better apartment, or the hope of freedom for themselves or their families.
The history presented is obviously well researched. Cold War Russia was almost a dystopian society in many ways, and Lindsay Smith does a fabulous job of presenting a stark dichotomy in the lives of the population. For most, it was a sparse existence, with rations, queues, harsh vodka and fear housed in cold grey concrete apartments, not far from the brightly coloured domes of St Peter’s Basilica, and the luxury of warm housing, silk and velvet, champagne and caviar. But even the elite live in fear and mistrust, always looking over shoulders and wondering who in their lives will be next to disappear.
This debut novel is not without inconsistencies and problems. The plot begins quite slowly and moves sporadically throughout. There are action-packed sequences and flashbacks, but then time skips by without explanation, making it a bit confusing at times. Along those same lines, the timeline seemed off sometimes. And I don’t think it was – a few quick google searches confirmed that songs were released and shots fired and moons orbited as written – but the feeling was one of cramming in too much in a short period of time. All that said, veiled hints are dropped throughout the story that seem inconsequential at the time until major events and twists happen and bring them all neatly together.
As for the training, too much is left unexplained. To me, the story reads as though Smith knew the teens had to train their minds to master their powers and in spy craft, but she had no idea how that would happen. She rushes through it all, teens are given a few textbooks and then sent into the field, with little to no explanation of the training or the mission itself. Spying has a long history, especially during the Cold War. There should be more to it. The training itself could fill a novel, and I think the background could only add to the mystery and suspense.
Smith also missed an opportunity to really analyse the psychic abilities of the various spies and how each worked. How did the music veil their thoughts to some, but not to others? Yulia thought escape 24 hours a day. Even with her musical defense, how did she prevent others from peeking into her head and discovering her thoughts? She lived in a house full of psychics. And the scrubbers cause pain, just by looking at them, or being in the same room? More explanation is needed, or at least someone needs to explain it to me. My brain hurt trying to figure it out.
So, all in all, a unique enjoyable YA novel, with room for improvement. Maybe the problems are ironed out in book two of the series, Skandal. I haven’t yet decided if I’ll read it. To me, Sekret can stand alone. It didn’t end with a cliff hanger, but just left the door open for more. Suitable for the entire YA age range.
Sekret was published April 1st, 2014 by Roaring Brook Press/Macmillan Children’s.