Review: Orphan Agent Prima Pawn by Elizabeth Kiem

Orphan Agent Prima Pawn by Elizabeth Kiem is the third and final book in The Bolshoi Saga.

I’m not sure which obsession was greater with me when I was in my early teens: to be a ballerina or to have paranormal powers. If someone had offered me the ability for both, I would likely have cried for joy. Reading Elizabeth Kiem’s Orphan Agent Prima Pawn reminded me so much of those days but added even more intrigue than my younger, drama-loving self could have imagined. Plus, it’s set in the Soviet Union in 1958, a milieu very far removed from anywhere I’d ever been or dreamed of being.

The dictator Joseph Stalin has died, and his successor Nikita Khruschev has ushered in an era of more relaxed cultural and social mores. Sixteen-year-old Svetlana “Sveta” Kravshina has spent the last eight years growing up in an orphanage for the children of Enemies of the People. Her mother, the wife of a disgraced then-executed general, has just been released from the gulag and wants to see her again. Sveta is unsure of her own feelings, especially given the distance that has grown between them. They wrote to each other regularly at the beginning of their separation:

But eventually the letters slowed down. I told myself that she knew I was too old for shooting stars and happy cows, and that she had lost interest in pretending to mother an already-grown girl so far away. But I knew that wasn’t really what happened. I was the one who had lost interest. I had stopped writing. What was the point? Dear Mama, I hope you are well and in good spirits. I’m being a good girl and a grateful resident of Orphanage #36. What kind of a letter was that? What kind of a relationship was that? In our country, in our time—a completely normal relationship.

Sveta would much rather focus on her career as a ballerina. Her teacher wants to recommend her for the Bolshoi Academy, and having an undesirable as a parent—no matter how rehabilitated—could deny her that chance forever. But then a Tchaikovsky concert triggers an overpowering sensation in Sveta, a sense memory that she experiences clearly despite never having been privy to the events depicted. It is her mother who puts her in touch with a woman who will recruit her for the KGB and oversee her psychic training as well as pull all the right political strings to make sure that Sveta attains her ballerina’s heart’s desire. But at what cost? Sveta soon finds herself caught up in the world of international espionage even as her heart is snared by two very different young men.

I cannot say enough good things about Ms. Kiem’s writing. She shines a spotlight on the historical period of the Thaw, writing about it with as much realism, grace, and spirit as she does the internal life of an adolescent girl. And oh, her passages on music and dance! Whether it be the hallucinatory experience of Sveta’s first psychic trance or this passage on Sveta’s attendance at a forbidden Western music party held in a remote warehouse, Ms. Kiem’s words draw you in with their verve:

On one side of the floor the “swing” scaled fresh acrobatic heights. On the other, the exaggerated foot stomping and thigh slapping native to this abandoned warehouse grew louder in response. There was taunting and cheering as the jive surged forward, only to be knocked aside by the lockstep line of Kamarinsky hoofers.

It was a battle royal of enemy dances: an American twist, a Spanish flamenco, a proletarian polka, a Kavkazki split. A bobby-soxer slid through the spread-eagle of a muzhik’s flex-kneed squat like a spy in the night. It was a Cold War on the dance floor, and before I knew it I had entered the fray.

It must have been the music. There was no other way to explain the collapse of my perfect posture. My practiced turnout turned itself inside out. I threw my hands up in surrender[.]

I so very much enjoyed reading Orphan Agent Prima Pawn. My only regret is that this is the first of the series that I’ve read, despite it being the third in the sequence, and I feel like I lost a little of the impact of the denouement in skipping the other two. As much as this is a book about a fictional psychic ballerina spy and the very real time and place that made her existence a strong viability, it is also, at heart, an exploration of the bonds between mothers and daughters. I am going to rapidly remedy this lapse in my reading and am already happily anticipating the fact that I have so much more of Ms. Kiem’s writing to discover and relish.


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Doreen Sheridan is a freelance writer living in Washington, D.C. She microblogs on Twitter @dvaleris.

Read all posts by Doreen Sheridan for Criminal Element.


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