I read The Sparrow last year and was absolutely gutted by the story of Father Emilio Sandoz and the crew of the first mission to Rakhat. Having decided to work my way through Mary Doria Russell’s works, I knew that I would eventually read its sequel, Children of God. However, I knew very little about it, other than that it continued Emilio’s story. Bonnie also read The Sparrow for Cannonball Read 7, and we had talked about reading Children of Men together this year. In our Book Club discussion of Doomsday Book, bonnie compared Father Roche to Father Sandoz, which led to a conversation about being ready to read this book this July. We did, and I’m glad we read it at the same time, because knowing that she was waiting for me to finish so we could talk about it kept my eyes on the prize and meant that I had someone to send my rambling email thoughts to.
Briefly, the plot of the novel can be summarized as such: We follow Father Emilio Sandoz, the only member of the original mission to the planet Rakhat to return to Earth. He has barely begun to recover from his ordeal when the Society of Jesus basically blackmails him to help in preparing another mission to Rakhat. Emilio is done with the Church, the Jesuits, God, and Rakhat. Unfortunately none of them are done with him and he finds himself trapped in machinations much larger than one person.
Children of God wasn’t as powerful as its predecessor, but I remain enthralled with Russell’s ability to create new worlds, and recreate our own. I struggled with how to put my thoughts together about this book. The theme that stuck out to me was the redeeming value of choice, specifically of faithful choice. But, and this is both a strength and a weakness of a book this complex: it almost doesn’t hold true because more than a few of the redemptions which happen aren’t set up by choice at all. Or certainly not a personal choice.
My friends and I have a saying (which isn’t unique) that God keeps throwing us back into the molding fire when it’s time to learn something new, and that it’s painful. That is also written plain as day in these two books. It would be easy to see that theme in Emilio, as he is often physically suffering throughout the course of the book, but it stood out to me most clearly in the character of Ha’anala, who finds herself between all cultures and seemingly having to no other choice than to walk her own painful and rewarding path. The choice, and the pain of growth, are everywhere in her story and she was perhaps my favorite character in this work. I found myself hopeful for her when I had written off many other characters.
The Sparrow and Children of God function as a single narrative. You can’t read this one without having read the first. The story picks up immediately following the events of The Sparrow. I wouldn’t suggest picking up book two immediately upon completing book 1. However, maybe don’t wait the nearly 18 months I did. You’ll still get the emotional wallops you’re meant to, and you’ll remember details more clearly.
I remain convinced that Russell is an innovative and philosophically provocative novelist. Her novels, the three which I have read, all make me think. I think long and hard about the themes, devices, and conversations she layers into her work. I’m only rating this book three stars, but I rate Mary Doria Russell five stars. Her prose is beautiful, she rarely (once in two book!) falls back on cliché, and expertly crafts relatable characters and expertly draws locations. I personally often have a difficult time seeing the worlds science fiction or fantasy writers create. I don’t have that problem with Russell.