Review: Sekret by Lindsay Smith

Saturday, February 15, 2014
Title: Sekret
Author: Lindsay Smith
Genre: historical fiction, supernatural
Series: Sekret #1
Pages: 337
Published: expected April 1 2014
Source: ARC from publisher
Rating: 3/5

Yulia’s father always taught her that an empty mind is a safe mind. She has to hide her thoughts and control her emotions to survive in Communist Russia, especially because she seems to be able to read the minds of the people she touches. When she’s captured by the KGB and forced to work as a psychic spy with a mission to undermine the U.S. space program, she’s thrust into a world of suspicion, deceit, and horrifying power where she can trust no one.

She certainly can’t trust Rostov, the cruel KGB operative running the psychic program. Or handsome Sergei who encourages her to cooperate with the KGB. Or brooding Valentin who tells her to rebel against them. And not the CIA, who have a psychic so powerful he can erase a person’s mind with his own thoughts. Yulia quickly learns she must rely on her own wits and power to survive in this world where no SEKRET can stay hidden for long.

Sekret is an ambitious first novel -- an intriguing mix of historical fiction, espionage, and totalitarianism -- and it mostly succeeds at some of the things it tries to do. It feels very different from its contemporaries for numerous reasons in addition to those named above, but the tired plot devices that were used (love triangles! Wheee!) were unfortunate and unneeded. While I ended up tentatively liking this by the end, it was nowhere near the success I had anticipated upon reading the synopsis. However, the series has good bones and I would return to try the second novel.

Sekret is the story of Yulia Chernina, a teenage political fugitive in her own native country. In Khrushchev's USSR not only is "everyone is equal, but some are more equal than others" but psychics, like Yulia, are hunted and kidnapped by the KGB, used to fight the American CIA in the space race. Moscow, 1963 is a very dangerous place for someone like Yulia and when she is inevitably forced to work for the KGB, all the secrets surrounding her life slowly reveal themselves and have direct impact on several key events of the plot. Yulia is a decent protagonist. I can't say I ever truly liked her, but I liked things about her. She has spunk and anger, but she fails to think things through, or to think before reacting. At first it's understandable, but by the end it's an issue. She didn't evolve enough for me, and the Yulia at the end of the novel felt like the Yulia we began the story with.

None of the characters really sparked with life or caused me to invest emotionally. Across the board, they all felt somewhat flat. Yulia and her love triangle compatriots Sergei and Valentin have the most characterization, but they each lack personality and complexity. It's not even hard to predict the eventual "winner" of the triangle because subtlety is not involved with the characterization of either boy. From Larissa to Ivan to Misha and Masha, they feel like actors playing a role, rather than real teenagers. They are labelled either friend or foe (of Yulia) early on, though neither side receives more attention. The antagonists, Kruzenko and Rostov, pack enough menace but they both are depicted as entirely villains. There's no complexity to either of them, either.

Now for the things I enjoyed. First among these is the thoroughly Russian atmosphere that permeates Sekret. Lindsay Smith obviously knows a lot about Russian culture and history and that knowledge is reflected back by how atmospheric her debut novel is. It doesn't read like a bunch of American teens set in 1960s USSR. No, it reads like these are Russian kids in their own country, with their own slang and traditions. It's so refreshing --- even if America is the faceless enemy. Maybe ESPECIALLY because America is the enemy. 

Also: real psychics working in government agencies. We've all heard about CIA experiments so it's quite novel to read about real ones being used against the United States. Smith creates or uses various aspects of the talent, from psychometry to "remote viewing" to empathy for her teenage operatives to use and between them, they can recreate a variety of viewings, from past to present to future. It's an admittedly cool idea and though Sekret wasn't as nearly action-packed as I had expected, Smith uses the supernatural element naturally and organically.

Smith also pulls off some smart twists as Sekret winds its way towards the end. I refuse to ruin the effect that reading the book provides, so all I will say is that though I called one twist the other made my jaw drop in surprise. Some of the novel felt like it loses sight of the plot, but when Smith brings it all together, it works for the most part. For a debut, it's not bad. I've read much worse. For what it's worth, Sekret is interesting enough, with enough potential, to keep me looking out for a sequel, if not rushing out to stores to get a finished copy of this.

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