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The Sparrow
      Children of God
Mary Doria Russell
Fawcett Books, 432 pages
      Villard Books, 438 pages

The Sparrow
Children of God
Mary Doria Russell
Mary Doria Russell was born near Chicago in 1950. A paleoanthropologist with specialities in bone biology and biomechanics, Dr. Russell did extended field work in Australia and Croatia. She moved on to write computer manuals before beginning The Sparrow. She has been married to Don Russell 27 years. They have one son, Daniel, who was born in Croatia in 1985. The Russells live in Cleveland, Ohio.

Mary Doria Russell Website
ISFDB Bibliography

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Kristen Pederson

Sometimes you read a book that changes the way you think, that has characters so well drawn and experiences so beautifully described that they become a part of you. Bridge of Birds by Barry Hughart was like that for me; I first read that book over 15 years ago, and I still love to reread it. Watership Down also did it, but I find fewer and fewer books move me in such a way as I get older.

The Sparrow, however, is one of those rare, precious books.

Emilio Sandoz is a Jesuit, and the only survivor of the Jesuit-led first contact expedition to the planet Rakhat. Accused of terrible crimes by those who arrived after him, physically and emotionally maimed and bereft of his faith in God, Sandoz stands at the outset before the Father General of the Jesuit order as those back on Earth try to piece together how a mission which started with such promise could have gone so horribly wrong.

Now, you ask me, given such a depressing premise, why should I read this book? Because it really is that good. The Sparrow describes the exhilaration of discovering we are not alone in the universe, the excitement of first contact, and the horrible mistakes that can be made with the best of intentions. It renders comprehensible the personal, rather than institutional, choice of celibacy as a path to God. It has power. It has beauty. It contains truth, wisdom, passion, terror, and love.

It contains some of the most engaging, interesting, and multi-dimensional characters I have encountered in years. Sandoz and his fellow travellers, some Jesuit, some not, are portrayed with unique and believable quirks, foibles, and strengths. Sandoz himself is a fascinating character who is easy to like, and whose eventual descent into his wounded state is unpredictable and heartbreaking.

The writing in The Sparrow is yet another reason to read this book. Russell has a beautiful style, and a gift for description. The plot is tight and well structured, and Russell has chosen, unusually and very effectively, to reveal events through flashbacks as Sandoz is questioned by the Father General. In spite of the reader's knowledge of the ending of the story, events move in surprising directions. The tale's slow unravelling is enthralling, even as it challenges our assumptions, our expectations, and perhaps even our prejudices.

When it made its debut a few years ago, The Sparrow received an enormous amount of attention. It won the James Tiptree Jr. Memorial Award, and the Book of the Month Club's First Fiction Prize, and deservedly so. This is a book I will read again and again, and be able to find new nuances and be provoked in new ways each time. Which, in the end, is what makes truly great science fiction.

Children of God, the much-anticipated sequel to The Sparrow, continues the story of Father Sandoz and the two native cultures on Rakhat, and has Russell develop more deeply some of the minor and major players who first appeared in The Sparrow.

That old Prime Directive to affect a new culture as little as possible has proven to be utterly untenable. Despite their best efforts to the contrary, the presence of the members of the Jesuit mission has shaken both the Ja'anata and Runa cultures to their very foundations in different but equally powerful ways, and the inevitable social change that results utterly changes the face of Rakhat. The action flips around over the course of 50 years between Rakhat, Earth, and the spaceship Stella Maris, which bears a very unwilling Father Sandoz back to the one place where he wishes most not to be.

The writing is still wonderful, the characters still convincing and intriguing. Structurally, Russell is still at her most effective whenever she uses her flashback technique. Her continuing exploration of the sociological ramifications of the symbiotic (or parasitic, depending on your point of view) relationship between the Runa and the Ja'anata has surprising and chilling results on Rakhatian society. One of her most interesting themes is the reinterpretation of one culture's symbolism within the framework of another, and the light which is then shed on the originating culture.

Children of God is not as seamlessly satisfying as The Sparrow, although in all fairness I do not know whether this is due to the privileged position the latter occupies in my heart at the moment. Neither am I sure if I appreciated some of the changes Emilio is put through, although I rather grudgingly suppose he does behave within character. As well, the amount of time that is spent in space means that less time can be spent on Earth and Rakhat as time passes more slowly on the Stella Maris than planetside.

Still, these are minor complaints. Once again, Russell has managed to create a wonderful book. While I can't honestly say that I think it is as good as The Sparrow, it is certainly an excellent book which I read with pleasure.

Copyright © 1998 by Kristen Pederson

Kristen Pederson has the rare distinction of being the only person in Canada to have worked at two Canadian science fiction bookstores: the House of Speculative Fiction in Ottawa, and Bakka Books in Toronto. Nowadays, she works in academic publishing and reads science fiction and fantasy to keep her grip on reality.

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