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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