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Monday, March 28, 2016

Some of what I love about Mary Doria Russell's The Sparrow

So I don't blog for months, even as the world lurches further towards chaos and we endure the most interesting and bizarre presidential election campaign in many decades, and now I finally take up keyboard to respond to a book review? And it isn't even a review of one of my books?

Yes, because Mary Doria Russell's The Sparrow is one of my very favorite books in any genre, and I cannot relax and digest my breakfast without addressing some points in the review that could discourage future readers.

The blog: Strange Charm, which "showcas[es] speculative fiction by women," and which has reviewed two of my own novels, an attention for which I'm grateful.

The review introduces the book very capably. The general reference to what happens "forty years later" is not a spoiler: the book follows two timelines throughout. However, the members of the mission are not, as the review indicates, "a bunch of people who happened to be at the same cocktail party." They are a well-established group of friends, already drawn together by various circumstances and connections. I do not agree that there is anything "madcap" about the deliberately discussed Jesuit mission to learn about the first sentient alien species discovered. And while I cannot rationally protest the reviewer's failure to like any of the characters other than the priest Emilio Sandoz, I protest nonetheless -- as I fell deeply in reader-love with them all upon first reading, and have remained in love with them for all the years since. I have never read more brilliant dialogue than much of the dialogue in this book (which I would never in a million years have thought of characterizing as "goofing around and telling dirty jokes," although upon reflection, I can see that the description has a certain unilluminating accuracy). And I firmly believe that many a reader who spends hundreds of pages with these complex, varied, fundamentally decent characters will emerge with some renewed hope for the human species.

For what it's worth, which I recognize isn't a great deal, I also had no problem with the pacing of the story or the revelation of what happened to the mission and its members. I will confess to a whisper of doubt as to the Father General's approach to psychology, but that is an unimportant quibble.

As for the strengths that Strange Charm identifies in the book, I agree heartily with all of them.

I have recommended The Sparrow many times, and do so again, with a caveat: terrible things happen. In fact, with a flippancy that neither the book nor its characters deserve, I have sometimes said that The Sparrow should bear the subtitle: When Terrible Things Happen to Good Jesuits and their Friends (a reference to this book).

The sequel, Children of God, is also very much worth reading. It is not quite as excellent as The Sparrow, but it is very good indeed (though its otherworldly politics are somewhat more intricate, which may be a challenge for those like me who can find intricacy a challenge). I recommend it to anyone who finishes The Sparrow with curiosity about Rakhat and its people, or about the intelligent, well-intentioned crew of humans who journeyed there.