Mary Doria Russell’s first novel, The Sparrow, failed to live up to my (rather high) expectations. I had heard that it had well-developed characters, an interesting first contact story, thought-provoking commentary on religious themes, and a haunting ending that stayed with you long after reaching the final page of the book. It sounded exactly like the kind of book I love, but it just did not capture my interest to the extent I had expected, although I did not dislike it. I will most likely not be picking up the sequel, Children of God.
Emilio Sandoz, the once revered Jesuit priest, is now famous as the only survivor of a space mission to the planet Rakhat and infamous as a whore and the murderer of an alien child. The Jesuits are attempting to treat Emilio’s disfigured hands and coerce him into telling them the story of what happened to him while he was away from earth. The story alternates between Emilio and the Jesuits in the year 2060 and flashbacks of the discovery of life on Rakhat, the trip to this distant planet, and the events that occurred there.
The half page long prologue introducing the Jesuit’s desire to go meet God’s other children had me intrigued. The first couple of chapters relating Emilio’s current state made me curious about how he became such a bitter man. I enjoyed most of the parts that took place in the year 2060, but the parts about the past dragged a bit, especially in the beginning. Too much time was spent showing the relationships forged between the members of the space mission and it seemed to take forever for the plot to advance to the actual discovery of alien life and the time spent with the residents of Rakhat. Normally, I would enjoy this, but none of the characters were well-written enough that I found this particularly interesting. They were mostly too perfect or too cheesy or just too obviously meant to fit into a particular stereotype. Somehow the characters just did not appeal to me that much other than the broken Emilio in the present. The interactions between him and the other priests were far more interesting than the dinner parties of the past.
The two main alien species discovered on Rakhat were the more compelling part of the story of the previous life of Emilio, although that was unfortunately a fairly small part of the flashbacks. The less intelligent, more naive Runa were greater in number but subservient to the more vicious Jana’ata. There were the usual common occurrences for first contact stories – misunderstandings abounded between the humans and the aliens and the humans made what they thought was a minor change that turned out to be a big mistake.
After all the mystery surrounding the details of how Emilio came to be the only survivor and such a different man from the person he was when he left, the ending revelation seemed rushed and very anti-climatic. The ending failed to affect me as much as one might expect partially because I already knew what was going to happen, but mostly because I never formed any real emotional attachment to any of the characters. It failed to shock me on the level I had anticipated, and therefore the tragic end did not keep resurfacing to my mind once I had put the book down.
One aspect of this book that was handled well was Emilio’s belief that the reason the obstacles that could have prevented the trip to Rakhat were so easily removed meant that it must be God’s will to go to this planet. Everything seemed so perfect, Emilio felt so happy and blessed about meeting God’s other children and learning to communicate with them, and relations with these aliens seemed to be going wonderfully. Then one little mistake caused the death of everyone left other than Emilio as well as the downfall of Emilio himself. The priest must deal with his guilt about convincing his friends that this mission was God’s will and being the sole survivor.
The stronger points of the descent of Emilio Sandoz, the religious themes, and the alien race are overshadowed by too much time spent with weak, uninteresting characters that I did not come to care about.