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The Sparrow
By Mary Doria Russell

Reviewed by Rob Gates
Rating: 9.5 out of 10

This is one of those rare first books that takes you on a fantastic journey and never reminds you the author hasn’t been driving for long. I hadn’t heard much about this one until I hit Worldcon and met Mary. She was a wonderfully intelligent, open-minded and charismatic speaker and I knew I had to read her novel. Luckily, Del Rey was giving away lots of books at their booth, and this was their crown jewel – the only hardcover they gave away copies of.

The book tells the story of a failed first contact mission to the stars led by Emilio Sandoz, a Jesuit priest with a troubled past and an idealistic streak a mile wide. The story is told in two different timelines – the events leading up to and of the mission, and the private debriefing led by the head of the Jesuits after Sandoz’s return from the alien planet. There is no mystery to the fact that the contact mission has failed and we know from the start that Sandoz is the only survivor. The mystery lies not in the events of the mission, but in Sandoz’s relating of how he came to be the only survivor and how he ended up in the alien whorehouse where he was found. Often, multiple time lines can be confusing in a story, but Russell provides us with a road map by telling us where we’ll end up, thus making the switches comfortable.

The book has many strengths and few weaknesses. The characters she has created are fascinating and very real. The relationships between them have their ups and downs, they fight, they love, they struggle with indecision. Instead of peopling the mission with a disparate group of characters looking to come to know each other, she instead gives us a group whose relationship is already that of a family. As these characters wrestle with understanding the sad events of the mission, they support each other and we come to feel for them as well. As we see each character’s death we begin to understand more and more the cause behind Emilio’s fall from grace. The society she has created on Rakhat is clever and mesmerizing, and the ironies behind the beautiful music that originally sparks the mission are immense. She’s used her knowledge of anthropology to create a culture both shocking and realistic. The story’s only weakness is that it leaves many doors unopened. We’re shown so many things both inside and outside of the characters, but there is obviously so much more to see given time (more pages). Whereas many books suffer from under-editing, this one seems to suffer from over-editing.

Like all great books though, its real strength is in its exploration of the human heart and soul. As we watch Emilio’s struggle to understand the trials and tribulations of the mission, we see real emotion in both the words he chooses and the things he does. It’s impossible to come away from this book without asking yourself a number of questions about faith, love, and the nature of the divine.

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