In middle school, I used to stay up very late
reading. My eyes would start to fail me in the first hour or two of
the new day, and yet I would continue to read, pausing between
pages to let my eyes refocus properly. This is undoubtedly a large
part of why I need glasses now; the only thing I regret, however,
is that I didn't read books more intellectually stimulating than
Piers Anthony. [At the time, of course, I thought Piers Anthony was
the height of intellectual stimulation.]
It has been a long time since a book kept me up past three or four
in the morning, but both The Sparrow
and Children of
managed to do just that. I started The Sparrow
day before Christmas Eve; it was a present from a friend of mine,
and while I had never heard of the book, I take this friend's
recommendations very seriously. I thought it started well, but I
put it down for the festivities of those days, and only really dove
into it on the night of Christmas Eve proper. The house was quiet,
and I decided to sneak a few more pages in before I fell asleep.
The next thing I knew, it was four in the morning and I was bawling
like a baby at the end of the book. A week later, I found myself
ordering the sequel from amazon.com. Like its predecessor, I read
the first hundred pages or so of Children of God
great feeling of pressure; the book was good, but it did not
captivate me. And then, last night, I picked it up again.
I was up until five.
Both books detail the trials and tribulations of one Emilio Sandoz.
The first book takes place in two time periods; one where Sandoz
has come back from a mission to another planet, where he is called
"whore" and "murderer" for rumoured atrocities, one where he is the
only survivor of the earlier trip. The second time period is that
of preparation for the mission, of going on it, and of the
calamities that make Emilio what seems to be the only human who
survived the eight-person mission.
The fact that you know who is going to die from the beginning makes
the book all that much more poignant. I found myself trying to
resist attachment to the other characters, knowing full well what
would happen to them, then found myself attached despite myself,
and crying when they inevitably died. Unlike Apollo 13
where we know from the beginning that they will survive, much of
the tension in The Sparrow
comes from the knowledge that
people you care about will die, and there is nothing that you, the
reader, can do about it.
The books are science fiction, but they are not typical science
fiction. Indeed, The Sparrow
is one of the most
character-driven stories I have ever read, of any genre. While a
few of the character suffer from a lack of exposition, there is
enough detail to make them not feel like cardboard cutouts, and the
truly central characters--Father Sandoz, Sofia Mendes--get fleshed
out as much as any fictional character can be.
Aye, Emilio Sandos is a Father--four of the eight people on the
trip to the alien planet are Jesuits. Indeed, The Sparrow
deals heavily with religion, the religion of the pious and that of
the athiest. But it is never preachy, and you do not feel like the
religion is being shoved down your throat.
Central to both stories are the races that the humans discover on
the nearby planet of Rakhat. There are two sentient species there,
the Runao and the Jana'ata. They are complex and intertwined, not
merely throw-away concepts good for moving the plot along. Indeed,
the interplay between the two races is a key component of the
conflict in both books.
It is hard to talk much about Children of God
a great deal of information away about the first book; suffice it
to say that the human visit to Rakhat has a profound impact on that
world, and Emilio Sandoz once again finds himself on an
eight-person spaceship to the planet that haunts his days and
nights. There are new characters to love, old characters to
remember. Indeed, Mary Doria Russell considers her two books to
really be one longer work, and they certainly read that way; The
and Children of God
are inseperable. Once again,
she uses parallel storylines to great effect, letting us know
snippets of what happened before we find out why
It is hard to describe the impact that these books had on me. Never
before had I read science fiction which dealt with religion so
intelligently; never before had I been so entranced by alien races.
And Russell did an amazing job of making me do precisely the sort
of typical human things that are the downfall of the characters in
the stories; I assumed when I shouldn't have, judged when I had no
jurisdiction. She slapped me in the face a few times, and I
As with any story, there are issues. Some of the character seem a
bit larger than life; there are also many "coincidences," but that
is indeed a large part of the story as a while. Never did I snort
and think that the books cheated; while wonderful things happened,
many horrible things did as well. These are Russell's first novels,
and I shudder to think about where she could go from here.
I close this by simply saying: if you have ever wondered, these
books are worth reading. Wonder about what?
, you may ask.
And I will only smile.
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