The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell – Book Review

The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell
Published by Ballantine Books, an imprint of Random House

So, everyone’s all, “Jesuits in space! How can you not love The Sparrow?” Here’s my problem, every time I ever heard anyone mention Jesuits in space all I heard in my head was “Jesuits…. In…. Spaaaaace…” like that old pigs in space sketch from The Muppet Show. As a result, it seems that I imagined that The Sparrow was going to be a comedy.

Uh, yeah, no. That assumption got pretty awkward pretty fast. The Sparrow alternates between two time periods, the first is leading up to and during the mission to Rakhat – a recently planet recently discovered to have intelligent life – and the second is after the return to Earth of Jesuit priest Emilio Sandoz, sole survivor. Almost immediately the reader learns that things went very, very wrong on Rakhat. Not only did the entire rest of the crew die, but Sandoz has been accused of something heinous – and initially fairly vague – by the secular mission from Earth to Rakhat that rescued him.

There is a lot going on in The Sparrow and it took me some time to find my way into the story, although this might have been partially because I was expecting something quite different than what I was actually going to get. Once I became fully immersed in Russell’s story – and it didn’t take very long – I was completely hooked. You might think that knowing from the get-go that these characters with whom you are connecting will not make it back from Rakhat would detract from the suspense and the sense of urgency of the novel, but this turns out not to be the case at all. Despite the fact I knew I was going to lose these characters, Russell still made me care about them, and as the mission arrived on Rakhat I began to get very nervous for all of them, wondering when exactly the other shoe was going to drop.

It is difficult to believe that The Sparrow was Mary Doria Russell’s debut novel, because she teases out the story of Emilio Sandoz and what happened to him and his friends on Rakhat with absolute mastery. She also does not default to the easy, cliche themes and conclusions, either. Everything is complex and realistically messy. The Sparrow is a wonderful novel, and one I can definitely recommend.

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17 comments to The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell – Book Review

  • Emilio has remained with me since I read this book, many years ago. She has such a talent with characters! Now you need to read the sequel (The Children of God), slightly more positive on humans…

  • dog

    O asked for, and got this from my Books on the Nightstand Secret Santa and i cannot wait to dive into it! I actually had *no* idea what it was about other than “Jesuits in space” so your review actually helps clarify things a bit :-)

  • Yay! This is one of those books that I “evangelized” for all the time about 5 years ago, and it still makes me happy when people discover it! Maybe I’ve had enough distance for a re-read.

  • This is one of my three Favorite Books Ever, and like Jessica, I’m an evangelist for it (I co-hosted a group read of it a couple of years ago and won a few more converts). And “evangelist” seems oddly appropriate when applied to a book about “Jesuits in space,” doesn’t it? (Of course, it’s about much more than that too.)

  • Jesuits in Space? I had heard of this book before but had no idea that’s what it was about. Very curious now.

  • I heard Mary Doria Russell speak at the GE Bookfest a few years ago and, although she was there to speak about Doc, she did go into a little detail on those Jesuits in Space. It’s been on my to-read shelf ever since. I really need to make some time for this one.

  • One of my fave books ever – so glad you got to read it! Does anyone else think that Avatar (the movie) completely ripped off the space beings in this book?

  • A sci-fi book with Jesuits. Yeah…it sounds weird and I could see how you thought it was a comedy, but it won you over quickly. Will keep this book in mind when I want to read something different.

  • I read this ages ago. One day I will read more from her! It takes me forever to get around to things…

  • E. Cruise

    Please read the sequel to The Sparrow. It is just as good. Also Russell’s Threads of Grace is a wonder. It’s about a Jewish lawyer and resistance fighter in Italy during World War II. Central in his struggle is keeping alive the woman he loves (unrequitedly as she is married to his friend) . He infiltrates the Nazi administration.

  • Yay! This is one of my all-time faves. And I agree about reading Children of God. It completes this story more fully than the way the first book leaves off, if that makes sense. I’m so glad to hear you liked it.

  • Ali

    Oh my gosh, the fact that you went in thinking you were reading a comedy totally cracks me up. I’m so glad you liked it anyway! It’s one of the few books that I remember to recommend, years after having read it. I should read her others (besides the sequel, which I also recommend), I sort of forgot to check on whether she’d finally published again.

  • Bahaha, this is so not a comedy. I can definitely see how you got that impression, but I’m glad you still liked it!