Guest Review: Of Our Own Device by M.K. South

What do you do when you realize that the American Dream you've been working for isn't enough if it's yours alone? And what you're told to do will destroy the only true friend you've ever had?

Summer of 1985. Jack Smith is a rookie CIA case officer posted at the American Embassy in Moscow. Despite his gregarious nature, Jack is a lonely man: not only is he a reluctant spy, he is also gay.

When he meets Eton Volkonsky, a talented nuclear physics student, Jack's bosses instruct him to develop the Russian as a future agent. Their friendship deepens, and Jack is torn between his suspicion that Eton and friends are with the KGB and his attraction to the man. But he continues telling himself and his bosses that he is just doing his job, developing his agent.

Only when he leaves Russia does Jack admit that he has been fooling himself. He takes on assignments in various countries, with a hope that eventually they will get him back to Moscow.

As introspection and growing doubts about what he does for living torment Jack,the world is buffeted by a whirlwind of dramatic events - diplomatic and spy wars, the rise of AIDS, the Chernobyl catastrophe, the war in Afghanistan and the disintegration of the communist bloc.

Given a second chance, will Jack make the right choice?

Reviewer: Annery

It’s 1985, Glasnost and Perestroika have come to Russia, AIDS, which had been steamrolling through the gay community, is making its presence known to the world at large, and the Year of the Spy is in full swing between the C.I.A and the KGB. Welcome to the world compellingly and masterfully brought back to life by M. K. South in Of Our Own Device.

To his colleagues in the American Embassy in Moscow, Jack Smith is a recently appointed junior officer with the USIA. In reality he’s a deep cover C.I.A. operative whose persona is that of a gregarious, friendly, and at times oblivious American, though he is no such thing. It turns out Jack is uniquely qualified for life as a spy. He’s a gay man who came of age in a less accepting era (I’m guessing he’s over 25 but under 30) and place. He grew up in an infelicitous household, complete with dead mother and an abusive, alcoholic, bigoted father. In short he knows how to hide in plain sight in spite of physically being a looker: tall & dark with cornflower blue eyes. All he wanted was an escape, a better life, a ranch in California, the reality of which the army and later the C.I.A. promise like a mirage in the desert.

Jack is tasked with befriending any and all comers and, when possible, recruiting future agents or being a dangle. He not only speaks fluent Russian but due to his own curious nature is knowledgeable of the mores and culture which endears him to the locals and he can’t help but return the affection. In spite of everything he’s wonderfully human and that’s one of the almost surprising things the author does so well: making the characters fully rounded individuals who live in a recognizable world and don’t necessarily subscribe the easy construct of spy, agent, villain, hero etc. Within Jack’s purview falls Eton May-Volkonsky, the son of an American and what amounts to Russian royalty; the grandson of, in the world of the book, the Soviet originator of the Nuclear Winter Theory and a physicist in his own right. He’s also a musician, a poet, and generally a sweet soul who seems almost too fragile for the harsh world of the 1980’s USSR. Even so, he’s no wilting flower in need of rescue. In need of love? Who isn’t?

The book opens, during a performance of Eugene Onegin by Tchaikovsky at the Bolshoi Theater, the spy/thriller fans may think of the Mission Impossible or Jason Bourne movies but as the story progresses it put me in mind of the Bourne books and even of Le Carre, with the almost relentless emphasis on the daily minutiae in the life of a spy which paired with that of a bureaucrat is endless reports, counter intelligence runs to make sure you are or are not being shadowed by the “organs”, answering to office drones who are not in the field, and agencies who at times have contradictory agendas. In Jack’s personal circumstances he also has to work extra to keep up the facade of a heterosexual man. All of this is exhausting when all he wants is a weekend trip to Helsinki, have some meaningless sex, and watch the Live Aid concert.

I don’t know how much is too much to reveal in terms of the plot/events of the book. The bare bones would be that Jack comes in to the orbit of Eton, Lara, an aspiring actress and the daughter of the Deputy Minister of Culture, and their circle of friends. Though they’re all young, 20 or 21, they’re irresistibly attracted to Jack and all of his Americanness. For Eton, Jack is wide open spaces and a dream-like California. I had “Hotel California”, the whole album, on repeat for a week. It really sets the tone for the book. Eton feels an unspeakable attraction for Jack, one he can’t quite iterate even to himself. He has no point of reference for it. Jack feels the same but he’s so deep in the closet due to work, the times, and choice that a future together isn’t a foregone conclusion not least of all because almost all of Jack’s interactions with Eton are based on suspecting Eton of possibly being a current or future KGB agent and trying, albeit halfheartedly, to recruit him as an asset for the C.I.A. Needless to say those are less than ideal circumstances for anything meaningful to develop and though this is definitely not a romance, M/M or otherwise, the relationship between Eton and Jack does shape the course of the story and ultimately of their lives. Some might object to some of Jack’s interactions with Eton, more specifically how he treats him, like a potential agent, however he behaves entirely how a well trained case officer should. Bravo.

The bulk of the story takes place during 1985 & 1986 at the height of a veritable spy tit-for-tat between the U.S. and the slowly collapsing USSR. These are perilous times, everything is in flux, the earth is shifting, who can be trusted? where do you draw the line? how close to the edge can you stand without falling over? how much of your authentic self can you sacrifice for what you believe to be the “greater good”? The denouement of the story takes us to the latter part of 1989 when the cracks that were evident within the power structures have become craters. Afghanistan, the Soviet Union’s Vietnam, is blowing up, Denmark legally recognized the first same-sex marriage, and things in Berlin are about to take a sharp turn. Coincidentally Berlin is where our principals meet again after a lengthy separation. They haven’t gotten through the years unscathed and they can’t remain static.

I won’t lie. The book is long and initially it gave me pause but once I started it was like reading the diary of someone, Jack, with a life way more interesting than my own. The bulk of the story is told from Jack’s P.O.V. but there is a small section of journal entries from Eton, which is genius, because we get to be in the head of this complicated, smart, and beautiful Russian man, Jack’s counterpart and very much his equal. They both come from a place where they need to hide an important part of who they are. Such are the seeds of what promises to be a great relationship. Jack and Eton will linger in your mind long after you turn the last page.

Ultimately, this wasn’t a 5 star read for me because I desperately wanted, nay needed another chapter, an epilogue, or any kind of coda to comfort my heart as to Jack & Eton’s future. That’s how much M. K. South makes these characters vibrant and alive. I cared about them like dear friends whose story I never wanted to end.

For those interested in genre classification I’d say this is more of a spy/thriller/action-suspense with a same-sex couple as part of the story, and all that entails in that place and time, but definitely not a romance, though there absolutely is a love story.

Full disclosure: The author offered me a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review, however after reading the first chapter I realized I was all in and purchased my own copy because, whenever possible I like to support artists/writers and don’t want any BS from Amazon. *fingers crossed*

Don't miss the author's visit and blog tour for Of Our Own Device HERE!


  1. Sounds like my cuppa tea except the no romance. Is this a series where romance can grow?

  2. Thank you for your interest, Vicky! As Annery notes in her review, the book tells a story of an impossible love, and as such, there are romantic moments between the protagonists. But their love story is told in the general fiction/RL style, not in the romance genre style, if you know what I mean :) As for your question about the series, unfortunately, it's a 'no': at this time, it's a stand alone book. But a sequel may materialize at a time when I get my life back from my current day job :D

    Hope you'll enjoy the book.

    Warm regards,

  3. Well you got the answer from the source. I would add, that though not a genre romance, it is a love story between the MCs, from inception on, and that you should have no trouble imagining them into a happy future. Ultimately the arc of history is on their side. And maybe MK can gift us with something down the road.