Children of God (CBR8 #47)

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  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.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read.



The Sparrow (CBR7 #4)

Many moons ago I read Dreamers of the Day for CBR4. I loved the prose, and marveled at the rich character development even if my review isn’t as effusive (the book has grown on me over time). The author, Mary Doria Russell, has received positive reviews over the course of the many Cannonball Reads, so I decided that I wanted to jump back in with this author. I put The Sparrow on my library request list, and when the email came in that it was ready I picked it up and eventually got around to reading it, without reminding myself what the plot was (I tend to go back and work through an author’s oeuvre from the beginning after I’ve discovered I enjoy their work, and The Sparrow was Russell’s first book).

The Sparrow tells the story of a not too distant future (which we are nearly already in thanks to this book being nearly 20 years old) in which extraterrestrial life has been discovered on a not too far away planet and the team that assembles to make first contact. The story ping pongs back and forth between 2019 and 2060, and eventually the years in between. One of the time periods is full of hope, and one is full of despair. The despair of our main protagonist, a Jesuit priest named Emilio Sandoz was almost more than I could bear. But we’ll get to that.

Russell imagines a near future where the United States is no longer a predominant world power having lost two economic wars with Japan. Poverty is rampant, indentured servitude has returned to common practice and so-called futures brokers mine ghettos for promising young children to educate in return for large chunks of their lifetime income. Science and space travel are accelerated from the reality we know today, with near space asteroid mining and improved medical care. It is to this world, where specialists are hired to automate human work, that the Singers are first heard by a scientist about to be replaced. He shares the news with a ragtag assortment seemingly brought together by God, and the adventure is off.

But we hear about it after knowing it all ends in tears. And throughout much of the book, as we piece together the pain Emilio has suffered, and  are eventually told what happens to his friends we are constantly asked by the author to ruminate on what it means for our faith, and for the faith of the characters. We are also asked to examine the opinions we hold of our history’s own ancient explorers and what lengths groups like the Jesuits have gone to in the name of knowledge. What has been the cost?

I would suggest this book to almost anyone. Even though it has religious overtones (Judaic and Catholic) and is science fiction. It is written in poetry, and for that alone, and for the thinking it requires I am all in. However, you should be warned that this work might trigger you if you cannot handle the killing of young people and sexual abuse. That was perhaps the one thing that threw me off while reading, was that nearly all of the characters who interact with Emilio in 2060 to one extent or another engage in victim blaming. I think now upon finishing the book that it is supposed to show us that these characters cannot imagine what Emilio endured, but to this reader it made me angry at the characters several times, and often had me deciding to put off continuing into a 2060 chapter for fear of running into it again.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read.

Dreamers of the Day (CBR4 #24)

I picked this one up based on a review here in the Cannonball by meilufay.  I had never read a book by Mary Doria Russell and before this year’s Cannonball I hadn’t spent too much time in interwar Europe. Both of these things have now changed. I quite liked this story and was appreciative that it was a slim (249 page), quick read.

Dreamers of the Day is narrated by the disembodied voice of Agnes Shanklin who recounts to the reader the story of her time in Egypt during the 1921 Cairo Peace Conference. That conference went about hacking up the Middle East after the Great War. Agnes is an unlikely set of eyes from which to witness this piece of history, as she freely admits since she is a 40 year old spinster elementary school teacher from Ohio. During the Influenza outbreak of 1918-1919 Agnes loses her entire family and is therefore the sole inheritor of several estates, setting her up with enough money to live comfortably, but frugally, and splurge on a trip.

She does splurge, and decides to visit Egypt and the Holy Land as she promised her now deceased sister she would do. It is there that Agnes’ path crosses T.E. Lawrence, Winston Churchill, and Lady Gertrude Bell to name just a few. Russell does a fantastic job of using her research to build out the fictionalized versions of these characters and bring to life the behind the scenes work of bringing a great conflict to an imperfect conclusion. But this is not really where this book shines – it shines the careful illustration of Agnes’ life both pre- and post- adventure. I found the parts of the book describing the Influenza outbreak and the Great Depression a more grasping read as the middle of the book tends to get stuck in the hour by hour or minute by minute descriptions of events.

This book is full of well drawn characters and interesting story lines.  This is more than a good book, but less than a great book. I described it to a friend as wonderful.

Favorite quote (in a very quotable book): “Add water, and the soil is so fertile that you could plant a pencil and harvest a book” (Russell 211).