The Sparrow and Children of God

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 God managed to do just that. I started The Sparrow the 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 Like its predecessor, I read the first hundred pages or so of Children of God without any 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 without giving 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 Sparrow 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 they happened.

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 deserved it.

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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Last Updated: 2003.02.16.2046