THE SPARROW and CHILDREN OF GOD by Mary Doria Russell

Reviewed by Diane McKiernan, Friday Morning Book Club...take our poll!

The Sparrow

(March 30, 2006) The Sparrow and its sequel, Children of God, by Mary Doria Russell are science fiction: eight humans are on a Jesuit-financed mission to discover the source of songs emanating from the far reaches of another universe. At heart, however, the books are just as much an exploration of faith in God as an imaginative tale of another planet.

In the first book, the humans make contact with two sentient species of the planet Rakhat, the submissive Runao and the dominant Jana'ata. They exchange language and customs peaceably, but when the humans teach the Runao to farm, events spin tragically out of control. The central character, a Jesuit priest and gifted linguist, Emilio Sandoz, comes back to Earth physically and spiritually devastated.

In the sequel, the priest returns to Rakhat on a second Jesuit mission, this time led by a band of mercenaries. The social order has been completely upended and the Jana'ta are now in peril. Again, though, the central issue is spiritual: will the priest recover his faith in God and in mankind?

Especially in the first book, each character's faith and idea of God is challenged and dissected. The religious themes, which delve into Christianity, Judaism, agnosticism and atheism, led to a thoughtful and "spirited" discussion in our book group and an appreciation of an author and a genre many of us admitted we would never have chosen ourselves.

By the second book, which we read the month after the first, many of the loose ends in plot and character development had been tied up. We continued to find the writing compelling, but our discussion was a bit less enthusiastic this time. Many of us felt we'd had enough of Rakhat and perhaps should have separated these books by a few months. But all in all, we were happy to have had the exposure to these works and recommend them to other book clubs.

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