An empty mind is a safe mind.
Yulia's father always taught her to hide her thoughts and control her emotions to survive the harsh realities of Soviet Russia. But 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. Yulia quickly realizes she can trust no onenot her KGB superiors or the other operatives vying for her attentionand must rely on her own wits and skills to survive in this world where no SEKRET can stay hidden for long.
About the Author
Lindsay Smith's love of Russian culture has taken her to Moscow, St. Petersburg, and a reindeer festival in the middle of Siberia. She writes on foreign affairs and lives in Washington, D.C. Sekret is her first novel.
Read an Excerpt
An Empty Mind is a Safe Mind
By Lindsay Smith
Roaring Brook PressCopyright © 2014 Lindsay Smith
All rights reserved.
MOSCOW, SEPTEMBER 1963
MY RULES FOR THE BLACK MARKET are simple. Don't make eye contact — especially with men. Their faces are sharp, but their eyes sharper, and you never want to draw that blade. Always act as though you could walk away from a trade at any moment. Desperation only leaves you exposed. Both hands on the neck of your bag, but don't be obvious about it. Never reveal your sources. And always, always trust the heat on your spine that haunts you when someone is watching.
I pass through the iron gates to the alley off New Arbat Street. A mosaic of Josef Stalin smiles down on the ramshackle market he never would have permitted. If he were still our leader, the man wearing strings of glass beads, snipping them off for customers, would vanish overnight. The little girl with jars of bacon fat would emerge years later in a shallow ditch, her skull half eaten by lye.
Comrade Secretary Nikita Khruschev, the USSR's current leader, is content to ignore us. The Soviet Union provides everything you need, as long as you don't mind the wait: a day in line for butter and bread rations, another day for meat, seven years for automobiles, fifteen for a concrete-walled apartment where you can rest between factory shifts. Khruschev understands the stale-cracker taste of envy in every worker's mouth when a well-dressed, well-lived Communist Party official, more equal than the rest of us, strolls to the front of the ration line. If we quench our own thirst for excess in the black market, then that's less burden on the State. His KGB thugs only disrupt the market when we do something he cannot ignore — such as trading with known political dissidents and fugitives.
And I happen to be one.
A tooth-bare man lunges at me with an armful of fur coats. I don't want to know what creatures wore that patchwork bristly fur. "Not today, comrade," I tell him, straightening out my skirt. Today I must restock Mama's clinic supplies. (Average wait for a doctor's visit: four months. Average wait for a visit with Mama: three minutes, as she wrestles my brother Zhenya into another room.) The sour, metallic tang of fish just pulled from the Moskva River hits me and my stomach churns covetously, but I can only buy food with whatever's left over. We've lived off two food rations split five ways for some time now. We can live with it for some time more.
I spot the older woman I came for. Raisa, everyone calls her — we never use real names here. In this pedestrian alley, wedged between two disintegrating mansions from the Imperial days, we are all dissidents and defiants. We do not inform on each other for illegal bartering — not out of loyalty, but because doing so would expose our own illegal deeds.
Raisa's whorled face lifts when she sees me. "More Party goods for Raisa?" She beckons me into her "stall:" a bend in the concrete wall, shielded by a tattered curtain. "You always bring quality goods."
My chest tightens. I shouldn't be so predictable, but it's all I have to trade. The finer goods reserved for high- ranking Party members are worth their weight in depleted uranium here. I glance over my shoulder, hoping no one heard her. A boy and a girl — they look one and the same, with only a mirage-shimmer of gender to distinguish them — turn our way, but the rest of the market continues its haggling, lying, squawking. I let their faces sink into my thoughts in case I need to remember them later.
"Maybe you brought a nice filtered vodka? My boy, he wants a pair of blue jeans." Raisa ferrets through her trash bags. She still reeks of sweat from the summer months — not that I can criticize. I have to boil water on Aunt Nadia's stove to wash myself. "I have ointment for you, peroxide, gauze," she says. "You need aspirin? You always want aspirin. You get a lot of headaches?"
I don't like her making these connections, though for clinic supplies, I have little choice. If she knows about Mama's headaches, that's a weakness exposed. If she suspects we were Party members before we fled our home and became ghosts —
No. This is paranoia, gnawing at my thoughts like a starved rat. The KGB — the country's secret police and spying force — can only dream of training drills as thorough as my daily life, with all the ridiculous precautions I take. My fears are outweighed by one simple truth: I need something and Raisa needs something, and that will keep us safe.
Capitalism is alive and well in our communist paradise.
"Pocket watch." I hold Papa's watch by its twisted silver chain. "Painted face commemorates the forty-year anniversary of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics." My voice falters as memories of Papa ripple through me: He clicks it open, checks it, exhales a plume of smoke, tucks it in his coat, and turns back to the snow-slashed streets. "Wind it once a month and it'll run forever." I drop the watch in Raisa's palm, happy to bid those memories farewell.
"Not bad. Expensive ..." She bounces it in her hand, as if checking its weight. "But is it so practical? It will be forty-six years since the revolution this November. Outdated, yes?"
I wince. Has Papa been gone for five years? I turned seventeen last month, but there was no extravagant celebration like when we were favored in the Party. I've forgotten the taste of sugar frosting, the sound of wrapping paper tearing apart. I passed my birthday as I had the last four, keeping Mama and Zhenya hidden while I pawned away our history.
"Then it's a collector's item." I must be careful when defending an item's value. I've seen too many others expose their past or reveal their emotions when justifying a high price, but that's giving valuable information away. I must tell her only what she needs to hear. An empty mind is a safe mind, Papa always said.
Raisa nods, but looks unconvinced. Now we play the games of the market that can't be written into rules. Gauging your trading partner, assessing their offer, luring out what they really want and need. Knowing when to reveal what else you have to trade, and when to keep it hidden.
And I am better at this than most.
I move for the watch as if to take it back, but my fingertips linger against her skin. Concentrate, Yulia. In the moment when our skin touches, time shatters apart, like the world is run by a loose watch spring. I plunge into the emptiness, the silence around me, and when I surface from it I'm inside Raisa's thoughts.
She can turn a huge profit on the ointment — castoffs from the factory, because the formula was off. The peroxide cost her too much — a kilo of pork, and it was fresh, too. Raisa wants compensation. And me, always turning up with rich Party goods that raise too many questions when Raisa tries to sell them off —
I fall back into the void and thrash toward myself, and time winds back up to speed. I finish snatching the watch back and narrow my eyes.
"I don't want your ointment. I heard about the factory mishap. You thought I didn't know the formula was off?"
Raisa's jaw droops, the wart on her chin wobbling.
"You're not the right person for these goods," I say. "I'll look for someone who knows the value of Party items. Someone unafraid." I sling the bag over my shoulder and turn to leave.
"No — please, wait —" Her Baba Yaga witch-nails catch my sweater. The brief contact isn't enough for me to slip into her thoughts, but I sense her emotions in that touch: panic, fear, and ... loyalty. She will not turn me in.
How do I explain this ability I have? It must be something everyone does, unknowingly. Mama's textbooks say our sight and hearing are not such dominant senses as we believe. We smell others' emotions and taste their weaknesses. Me, I've found out how to focus thoughts and memories through touch, like steadying a radio antenna with your fingertips, the static sloughing off until a clear melody remains.
Or maybe, like my paranoia, I'm only imagining.
"Then let's talk seriously." I yank open my bag. "Keep your ointment. I want double the aspirin, and the gauze ..."
Warmth spreads along my back. The discomfort we feel when being watched — another intangible sense. Through a tear in Raisa's curtain, I get a better look at the twin boy and girl, russet halos of hair catching the afternoon sun, with matching disgusted expressions for their matching clothes. Their matching, expensive clothes. My nails split the bag's burlap fibers. Only junior members of the Communist Party — Komsomol, the youth wing — could dress so well.
"What's the matter, girl?" Raisa leans toward the curtain. "If you've brought the KGB to me ..."
The twins' gazes flit around the market like flies but keep returning to me. They duck under a cage of rabbits hung from the rafters, and glide toward us like Siberian tigers on the hunt. My blood is molten in my veins. The gnawing paranoia urges me to run, run, escape their doubled stare, run where their stiff new shoes can't follow. But what if I'm wrong? What if they aren't here for me, or only recognize me from my old life?
"Yulia Andreevna." The girl twin speaks my real name from lips that have never felt the rasp of winter. "Too easy. You don't even make it fun."
Raisa's curtain tears down easily in my grip. I swing its rod into the girl's face. She's caught off guard, but the boy twin's hand is there to catch it, like he already knew what I would do. I'm running, leaping over a stack of fabrics from the southern republics, shoving a bucketful of handmade brooms behind me to block the path.
"You can't run from what you are!" the boy shouts.
I chance a look over my shoulder. Yakov slows the twins, jabbing his box of rusty nails in their faces, but they disentangle from his sales pitch and knock over a little boy with bundled twigs. Who are they? Old schoolmates eager to turn in our family? I've cut all ties to our old life — we had to shed those snakeskin memories.
Vlad, the unofficial market guard, stands between me and the wrought-iron gate. I duck around him, but Aunt Nadia's shoes are a little too big on me and I skid to the side, losing my balance. He seizes the collar of my sweater in his fist. "You bring trouble, comrade?"
I wriggle out of the sweater and launch myself through the gates. My arms immediately prick with gooseflesh; it's too cold for just a blouse. But I have to ignore it. I have to reach Mama and make sure she's safe.
"You'll be sorry!" the girl twin screeches at me as I run past afternoon workers, shuffling out of the Metro stop. If I duck my head and keep my eyes to myself, they'll provide the perfect camouflage. "Don't you want to know what you are?"
What I am? I climb down the escalator slowly enough that I don't raise suspicion. My ratty clothes are lost in the sea of gray-brown-blue. Just another half-starved waif with empty eyes and empty hands. I know just what I am.
I am Yulia Andreevna Chernina, seventeen years old, daughter of former high-ranking Communist Party members. I am a fugitive in my own country. And sometimes I see things that can't be seen.CHAPTER 2
OUR SHELL-SHOCKED TANK of a neighbor lumbers toward me on the walkway, stinking of potato vodka and sleeplessness. I don't like the way his eyes pull from mine, like a magnetic repulsion. It's a guilty act, one I can't afford to ignore right now. Like the market, I need every advantage. As he brushes past me, I tighten up my mind — tuning that imaginary radio — and am thrown into his skin.
We are no longer standing in front of 22 Novaya Rodina, where the all-new apartment towers already look beaten and cowed. We are outside Lubyanka Square earlier this morning, standing in the bronze-cast shadow of Felix Dzerzhinsky, the father of the KGB, the secret police who tell us how to act, who to be. I peer out of the neighbor's eyes at a KGB officer in a mud-green coat who is smiling just enough to show the edge of his teeth. The officer scribbles in his notebook and says How long have the Chernins been hiding there?
This is the traitor, this neighbor who has reported us to the secret police, sentencing what's left of my family to death — for what? A bit of spending money? The twins at the market were no accident, though they didn't look like the usual KaGeBeznik thugs.
The officer lowers his notepad and jams his fist into a pocketful of worn-out rubles. We have been looking for them for some time, you know. The wad of notes dangles below my neighbor's nose. The Chernins are dangerous people. You were right to come to us.
I should have known, but there's no time to berate myself — or even this scum — so I fall back into the present and rush past him on the walk, thoughts of Mama pulling me toward the building.
Our building hangs over me as I rush up the too-long walk. It's made of giant concrete slabs cantilevered into place as if by magic — a Stonehenge for the people, the worker, the State. When Khruschev first built them, the workers were thrilled to leave the old roach-rotted, subdivided mansions that housed three families to a room. But to me, the building is our prison — I only leave it for the market or for a breath without four other bodies pressed against me. The rest of the time, my caged-animal stare could peel the lead paint from the walls. That girl dared to ask me what I am? I am the weed growing through the sidewalk's cracks, resilient, but knowing I'll someday be ripped out by the root.
I have to warn Mama. I don't know how long I've lost the twins for, if I've lost them at all. I don't know how many are with them. As I fumble with my key, I strain for the soft fall of boots on cement of a team sneaking around me, guns trained. But there is only me, with every instinct coiled in my genes screaming to save my family.
The elevator button clicks; an electrical current travels lazily down its wire, gears whirl, and the car yawns as it descends, as if it can't believe it must haul yet another person to the tenth floor. My nerves play a scale up and down my spine as the car jerks upward, rattling my teeth, the light of each floor drifting too slowly past the door's crack.
Can I trust this strange sight of mine, or is hunger and a five-year weariness in my bones confusing me? Maybe my head is just finding images it likes and stitching them together into patchwork paranoia. My parents are scientists — I don't believe anything that can't be proved. But it's been right too many times for me to doubt.
I reach the door to Aunt Nadia's apartment. Like the others in the antiseptic hall, it is black and densely padded, like we're in an asylum and can't be trusted with sharp, bright things. Unlike them, however, ours stands ajar. That little crack of air that should not be. My heart hides in my throat.
Sunlight dapples the front room, but it looks false, like someone's shaken an old, stale bottle of springtime and let it loose. No one sits on the bench, reading Gogol or trying to quiet the hunger that follows us as surely as our shadows. Only my gaunt reflection fills the foyer mirror, frazzled black hair escaping from its braids. Mama's coat hangs from the high hook with Zhenya's miniature one beside it; Aunt Nadia's and Cousin Denis's are gone.
It's four in the afternoon, the time I always walk Zhenya through the neighborhood, though I hate how predictable it makes us. It's hard to avoid routine with a brother who requires order the way some plants require a wall to anchor them. He'd have a fit if we didn't go, or worse, crumple up inside of himself and refuse to unfurl for the rest of the night. I open my mouth to call for him but can't force the words out into the open.
Excerpted from Sekret by Lindsay Smith. Copyright © 2014 Lindsay Smith. Excerpted by permission of Roaring Brook Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Hands down, this is the best young adult book I've read all year. Oh my goodness I loved this book! It is this crazy mix of history, suspense, espionage, and mystery. I really didn't expect to like it as much as I did, but it really surprised me. Yulia is a mind-reader. She can see memories and thoughts with a touch. She gets captured by the KGB and forced into working for them. The whole premise surrounding the book is unlike anything I've ever read. It's a gripping, heart pounding thriller. I could seriously gush about it forever. The characters are all really interesting, and I love their individual strengths and weaknesses. All of them are flawed in one way or another and they each have their own struggles they have to deal with. Other than the dystopian-like violence aspect and a bit of innuendo, the book is clean. It's so difficult to find clean young adult books that are also well written and engaging. I really enjoyed every page of this book and I can't wait to see where the story is going next. Even though it ends with the possibility of more books, the story is mostly complete and resolved, which makes me very happy.
Awesome historical thriller with a clever paranormal twist. I really felt like I'd been tossed into Soviet Russia and made to survive alongside Yulia and Valentin. I loved the inclusion of the Space Race and Russian music and literature and the Beatles and so much more, and the constant twists and betrayals kept me guessing all the way until the end. Can't wait for the sequel!
I'm sure this book is fantastic whether or not you're interested in Russian culture in history, but given that I am, and studied the language for three years, this was seriously EVERYTHING I could've asked for - crazy amounts of intrigue, suspense, history, beautiful setting descriptions, wonderful romance... I have to confess that I am not typically a fan of historical YA, but the second I finished SEKRET I literally yelled "More!" to my empty living room. So much love, and cannot wait for the sequel to release in 2015!
Sekret fully immersed me in a different era with a strong and unique "fantasy based in reality" storyline so different from all the endless futuristic dystopian stories out there today. I loved the psychic heroine Yulia's ability to touch items and feel and see what can't be seen by others. I'm an older reader, not a young adult, so the parallels to the Beatles, John Kennedy and the space race was a fascinating way to experience Russia in the 1960s. I highly recommend this well written book, and am anxious continue the story - there has to be a sequel right?
I went into Sekret fully expecting to fall head over heels in love. Part Sci-Fi, part historical fiction, featuring a unique premise about psychic Russian spies during the Cold War? YES PLEASE GIVE IT TO ME. Then make sure it leaves no impression on me whatsoever, because that’s exactly what happened. It wasn’t a bad book by any means, but it was unmemorable in every way. Except for maybe Valya. I love me some Valya. I liked the beginning a lot, but once Yulia is captured and begins her psychic spy lessons the book takes a turn for the blah. The pacing is all over the place, and a lot of the plot felt like filler until it seemed like a reasonable time for the spies-in-training to start going on missions. And then once they started going on missions it was all rush, rush, rush. There were a few plot inconsistencies and the “big reveal” about the enemy spy they are supposed to be hunting was entirely predictable. Despite all this I did enjoy the novel for the most part, especially the ending. The characterization was okay. I liked the variety in personalities, but I would have liked to know more of the secondary characters history and what motivates them. Yulia was naturally the most developed, but even she was problematic. Mostly because SHE IS SO DENSE. Early on she makes it clear that pretty much the only thing she cares about is her mom and little brother, which naturally means they are held captive by the KGB to make her cooperate. She also knows she’s living in a house full of spies who can read her mind, or whatever, and yet pretty much all she thinks about is how she’s going to escape. And this just makes no sense to me. I mean sure, maybe it’s natural to think about it initially, but when you know that thinking about it is putting your family in danger wouldn’t you, I don’t know, stop? Maybe I’m over-thinking it but it was one of those little things that just annoyed me in every instance. Overall everything about Sekret was just average. It was just intriguing enough to ensure that I will probably read the rest of the books once the series is finished, but not memorable enough to make me need them.
***Review posted on The Eater of Books! blog!*** Sekret by Lindsay Smith Book One of the Sekret series Publisher: Macmillan Children's Publication Date: April 1, 2014 Rating: 4 stars Source: eARC from NetGalley Summary (from Goodreads): An empty mind is a safe mind. Yulia's father always taught her to hide her thoughts and control her emotions to survive the harsh realities of Soviet Russia. But 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. Yulia quickly realizes she can trust no one--not her KGB superiors or the other operatives vying for her attention--and must rely on her own wits and skills to survive in this world where no SEKRET can stay hidden for long. What I Liked: Ooo, I'm surprised that I liked this novel so much! I kind of hate saying that, but it's true. To be honest, I had no idea what this book was about when I received the review copy. I didn't really know about it, and I didn't request it, but at the time, I didn't want to say no. I'm glad I didn't! I was happy that I liked this book as much as I did. This book is set in the 1960s, in Soviet Russia. Yulia has the ability to see the past history of an object, just by touching it. She doesn't really know how to control her power, but she can't let anyone know about it, in order to protect her mother and disabled brother. But one day, the KGB take her, and hold her mother and brother hostage, giving Yulia no choice but to work for the KGB, with other "gifted" young adults. These peers have mind control powers as well, such as seeing possibilities in the future, seeing a place from far away, controlling what a person thinks, and so on. Sergei is really nice, and has a great personality. Masha is a complete b****, and her twin brother Misha has the male personality to match. Larissa is nice, but she is the one that sees the possibilities in the future. Valentin is the one who can control and wipe a person's memory - which makes him the most dangerous. Ivan... I can't remember what Ivan does, but he and Larissa are dating. Nevertheless, I really enjoyed reading about this cast of characters. The story is told from Yulia's perspective (first person), and I liked her voice. She is vigilant, constantly afraid for her mother and brother, constantly questioning everything, giving off the "ice princess" persona that she really is. I like her though. I really like Valentin - he truly is mysterious and brooding, but because of his power, he sort of has to be. I dislike the twins, but for all the best reason. Larissa, Ivan, and Sergei are really important secondary characters, especially Sergei. I didn't really see his role in all of this, not completely, anyway. The teens work together to help the KGB sniff out traitors, specifically people that want to the plans and designs of a Russian space shuttle (or something like that). But another person who can control and wipe memories, like Valentin and Rostov (Rostov is the head of the operation of the teens), pops up, and this book isn't just about finding traitors - it's about protecting the teens (especially Yulia) from the scrubber and his team. Except... are THEY the enemies? Or is it the other way around? The book is really interesting, once it picks up. I really enjoyed the historical aspect to this book, and that helped my interest. Smith did a really great job of portraying 1963 Soviet Russia, and the state of mind of the citizens. The first few chapters really captured the attitude. And we are constantly reminded of where the novel is taking place, as the novel goes on. The romance is one of things that caught my attention. At first, I thought the romance was going in one direction. Then I was like, that's too obvious, it has got to be Yulia and someone else. Anyway, I'll let you all figure out the romance - but if you see anyone mention a love triangle, DON'T BELIEVE THEM. There are two males that could have potentially formed a love triangle with Yulia, but no. It's all Yulia and one guy. And their relationship is slow and gradual and beautiful. I absolutely loved watching them fall in love - it wasn't really immediate. Well, suffice it to say, I enjoyed this book! I'm glad I gave it a shot, because I ended up really liking it! There is a really cool science fiction aspect to this book (I mentioned the mind-controlling powers). The abilities are explained by experimentation in the genes of the teens, so I would classify this book as science fiction, and not paranormal. Just clearing that up. I hope to read the sequel when possible! I'm glad I gave this book a chance. What a fantastic debut! What I Did Not Liked: I think my biggest "problem", which wasn't really a "problem", when you get down to it, was that it took a while for me to get invested in this book. I didn't really get into the story until Yulia did something surprising that involved a brass key (when you read the book, you'll know to what I'm referring). That's when things sort of changed, especially between Yulia and Sergei and Valentin. But up until that point, I was a bit apathetic. I was just waiting for Yulia to try to escape again, to take a few steps back in order to plan her big escape. And for the climax to come - probably something to do with the American scrubber. My point is, I had a good idea of what was going on until that point. At that point I mentioned above (with the key), I still had an idea of what would happen, but this time, I felt more invested, because of Yulia and Valentin. Would I Recommend It: Yes! And not just to fans of historical fiction, but also to those who love a good paranormal read - but this kind of paranormal is more like science fiction paranormal. In fact, I'm not even going to call it paranormal, because the abilities are supposedly the result of experimentation and genetic modifications. So. Science fiction fans will find this interesting (I know I did). And the romance is pretty great (and this is coming from the love triangle hater). So this book could appeal to many people! Rating: 4 stars. What a fabulous debut! I do hope to catch the sequel, when it becomes available for review (or when it comes out). I'm coming for you, Skandal!