am 30. Dezember 2005
The book `Children of God' is the sequel to Mary Doria Russell's award winning first novel, `The Sparrow'. In this we take up once again with Father Emilio Sandoz, the only survivor of a doomed expedition to a nearby planet, set in the not-to-distant future. (Please see reviews of `The Sparrow' for a little more detail about that.)
Most of the characters from the first novel have died (in this novel we discover how a few of the missing people from the first expedition met their fates), and due to the effects of near-light-speed travel, many decades have passed on earth while Father Emilio is still relatively young.
There are political crises on earth, including a crisis in the church, and there seems to be an urgent need for yet another expedition to Rakhat. In the interim, there have been several attempted journeys, all of which have failed. The church hierarchy decides that the only 'successful' trip was that of Father Emilio, and thus decides (largely without his consent) to send him off again.
At the same time, Rakhat has undergone a dramatic change, brought about in part by the arrival of the strangers, but also due to the political schemings of members of the dominant race, the Jana'ata. The Runa, always larger in population, begin to realise their oppressive situation, aided by renegade Jana'ata, and a civil war breaks loose. Into this situation the human expedition re-enters the scene on Rakhat.
This story completes many of the unfinished details from `The Sparrow'. By filling in the blanks while also carrying the narrative forward, Russell's rather dark picture of the nature of God in the universe (as enacted by the creatures on earth and elsewhere) becomes a little lighter, a little more just, a little less doomed. There is, however, no answer to the personal injustices, to Father Emilio's abuse both at the hands of the Jana'ata and the Jesuit order.
Russell's development of the characters, both human and alien, deepens and broadens in this second novel; her imaginative history of the alien cultures is quite stunning, and her treatment of the strengths and weakness in human character insightful.
Read `The Sparrow' and `Children of God' back-to-back if at all possible.
am 25. April 2000
CHILDREN OF GOD was a mixed book. The human-focused parts of the story lacked some of what made THE SPARROW great, but the Rakhatian parts were much better than those in the original. On the Earth (human) parts of the story: I have several problems with the human-focused parts of this story. First of all, there is the revival of Sofia. It was stated rather explicitly that she was dead in the first novel. Her revival stretches the plausibility of the novel. Secondly, the Camorra subplot present in this sequel was rather annoying. The Camorra characters Franz, Carlo, and Nico were all rather one-sided, and unnecessary. I don't believe that it was necessary for Russel to include these heavy-handed 'bad-guys' - they are very two-dimensional. In addition, the Jesuit characters in this novel aren't very well-fleshed out, either. Indeed, the contemplative and religious mood of the first book is somewhat replaced by action in this novel. Finally, Emilio Sandoz seems to have lost what made him an attractive and interesting character in the first book. He has become merely a bitter, sarcastic man, self-pitying and focused on his own pain, whereas, in the first book, he was more complex. In THE SPARROW, Sandoz was given depth and dimensionality. In CHILDREN OF GOD, Sandoz has lost that depth and become a shallow character, a change which I found most disappointing. However, on the bright side, the Rakhatian parts of the story were much better. I found that I understood the actions of the Runa and the Jana'ata much better after reading CHILDREN OF GOD. In addition, Hlavin Kitheri is shown in a more detailed, realistic way. Previously, he was shown as a sadistic, cruel villain - the man who destroyed Emilio Sandoz. However, here, he is shown as as a complex, mixed man, a genius and a rapist, a pampered third son and a revolutionary leader. In addition, I found the character of Supaari VaGayjur similarly expanded upon. My main regret about the Rakhatian part of the story is that it was not treated with more extensively. So, in the end, this book was mixed. The human story, I found, had lost some of its appeal and depth, but the story of Rakhat had become more absorbing and dimensional.
am 16. Dezember 1999
I thought Russell's first book, "The Sparrow," was the worst book I've ever read, however, so many people disagreed with me that I decided to give her another chance and read "Children of God." I have to admit that Children is a SLIGHTLY better book than Sparrow, but still represents a weak, amateurish attempt that, in my opinion, should have never been published. First, nothing in this story is original material nor is it old material presented in a fresh and original way. (See "A Case of Conscience" for a fabulous book regarding the same subject.) Russell does a slightly better job of characterization in Children. Emilio at least speaks and appears to live on the periphery of the human race, although Russell still fails to give us her characters's deepest thoughts, thereby reducing them to mere cardboard cut-outs. Sofia, who was so hateful and self-centered in Sparrow has surprisingly emerged as a fully-mature human being, much wiser than Sandoz could ever be. The only problem I find with her is that she still utters her warcry "I am Mendes," far too often. Russell's dialogue hasn't improved and things that are supposed to be profound often seem inane and funny. And she still uses words in the wrong way--a case in point being celibate--the state of remaining unmarried, which Russell uses to mean something else altogether. She's still painfully slow and boring. An author should be able to tell us what a book's about in the first paragraph, the first sentence, if possible. I think Russell could have improved Children greatly had she begun the book with "Emilio Sandoz had vowed never to return to Rakhat," or something similar and then given us the necessary backstory and exposition. Personally, I found Gina spiteful and self-serving and would have liked her more had I not met her personally but only heard about her. Writing is a gift and in my own personal opinion, Russell wasn't given this gift. I know many of you disagree, but there are also others who do agree (read the reviews, I'm not the only one who gave this book one star). I'm sorry, but I can't give this poor author a third chance.
am 15. Dezember 1999
I thought Russell's first attempt, "The Sparrow", was the worst book I've ever read, however many of her followers attacked me for having the audacity to express my own point of view. (Hey, don't forget, even Charles Manson had his followers and that didn't make what he did right.) Anyway, I decided to give Russell another chance and read "Children of God". Now I have to ask, "What's wrong with all you people? Is Sparrow the first book you've ever read or are you always that naive." While Children is SLIGHTLY better than Sparrow, it still represents a weak and amateurish attempt that should have never been published. First, nothing in this story is original material, nor is it it old material expressed from a fresh point of view (see "A Case of Conscience" for a fabulous book re the same concept). Russell does a SLIGHTLY better job of characterization in Children--Emilio at least speaks and APPEARS to live on the periphery of the human race, but Russell still fails to give us her characters's deepest thoughts and feelings thereby reducing them to little more than cardboard cut-outs. Sofia, however, who was so hateful in Sparrow now emerges as an almost fully-mature human being, much wiser than Sandoz could ever be, save for the fact that she still utters her war cry, "I am Mendes" with every other breath. Russell's dialogue hasn't improved and things that are supposed to be profound often seem inane. Russell should also check the meaning of her words before she attempts to use them. Celibate (from the Latin, caelebs) means a state of choosing to live unmarried, NOT a state of living without sex. That would be virginal. I'd wager that many celibate persons are definitely NOT virginal. And Russell's still painfully slow and boring. An author should tell us what a book is about in the first paragraph, the first sentence, if possible. Russell could have improved Children greatly had she begun with, "Emilio Sandoz had vowed never to return to Rakhat," and then given us the necessary backstory and exposition. We don't need to actually MEET the conniving Gina. This, however takes skill, something Russell still lacks and no doubt always will. Russell will never be an original or a first-rate writer--that's a gift she simply wasn't given. In my review of Sparrow, I advised her to learn to write. Now I think she should climb down from her self-appointed throne of wisdom and return to the dusty bones of anthro. At least there the mindless drivel she seems so fond of was mercifully inflicted on only a very few.
am 4. September 1999
It's about what I expected in a second half. (Me thinks she could have written more but her editor put a limit on the number of pages.) Her writing style is noticeably improved as her moving back and forth into time is not as abrupt as in The Sparrow. Supaari VaGayjur's character was well developed, as he becomes up being more tragic than Emilio Sandoz. Russell got me to judge Supaari at the end of the Sparrow as Voelkering judged Sandoz at the beginning-- good trick!. While the discourse of the pre-revolutionary Machiavellian politics was interesting in the Children of God, I was more interested with the spiritual dilemmas brought up in The Sparrow. Perhaps it is because Russell spends so much time on Fr. White Horse's pet subject, that the spiritual redemption of Emilio is anticlimactic, even hollow, if it ever reaches a clear resolution. I felt that Emilio came to peace with himself and even forgave Supaari VaGayjur and Havlin Kitheri -- he had to or the hatred would have killed him. But his relationship to God at the end seems just as distant, just as far removed as when he realized that his pleas during the rapes seemed to be futile gestures. It seems that Russell has two main threads one is of a spiritual nature and another demonstrates how even the political correctness of the late 20th & 21st century cannot prevent the sociopolitical havoc wreaked by a 'first contact' situation. In the first thread, Sandoz's experiences are not too dissimilar to Job, Jeremiah and other Biblical Prophets. The latter thread is very similar to the experiences of the early European 'Discoverers' of the Americas and our current judgement of their insensitivity. In the Sparrow, the political events help to drive Emilio's journey froward while in the Children of God the roles are reversed. I think it is this reversal that makes the Children of God not as satisfying to me.
am 20. August 1999
I find it interesting that amazon.com critics have given this volume a better overall review than the first book, "The Sparrow." I myself was enraptured by the first book, its human characters, the excellent meshing of linguistics, anthropology and theology, and Sandoz' almost Jesusian experience.
"Children of God" I cannot even get through. I have been wading through it for weeks and can't get into it. Sure, it's nice that Sofia survived because she was a cool neo-feminist and all, but the whole interplay between her, Supaari and her son Isaac is quite odd. Isaac seems like some kind of autistic prophet, which is rather bizarre to me. Russell seems to go into rather esoteric ideas about religion and civics in this volume. I have to admit, I have no idea at the point I'm at what is going on between Sandoz and the members of the Hugo crew. I can't figure out at all who's good and bad. Iron Horse? Sean Fein? And who are these Italian thugs, the megalomaniac conqueror Carlo seems more fit for an X-Men comic than Russell's universe....and did Father Giuliani put them up to this? If so, it ruins his character from the previous book, I'd say. I also don't find the VaRakhati characters very interesting in this one.
In conclusion, I guess sometimes you really should let the dead rest. The legacy of characters like Jimmy, Anne and George is done little honor by digging them around. In my mind, Sandoz's quest was finished in "The Sparrow."
am 12. Juni 1998
After the first book's tacked-on final page, which spun the narrative of The Sparrow around so as to force a sequel--a decision I found unnecessary in the context of the first novel's story, but so common with world-building SF novels--this inevitable follow-up has some strengths. The Jesuits here are less caricatured than their confreres in the first novel (although the choice of the name Sean Fein for the Irish-Jewish recruit was a bit too forced!)although, again, I would have liked more depth in their own tales, like that of the Basque linguist. Russell sets up her supporting characters intriguingly, but too often the time shifts of the alternating chapters and the plot intrigues take up too much space which could have been better given over to an exploration of the milieu in which both the Jesuits and their charge, the agonized Sandoz, must learn to cope. I did find his "dark night of the soul" more convincingly described than I was expecting, and also the difficult role Carlo Guiliani must play this time around managed to convey a well-rounded depiction of his conflicting moral duties as the superior of the Jesuit crew. The African pontiff's a deft cameo, too! but the great collapse of the planet's old order comes off too quickly and too distantly for the reader to be pulled into the scenes in the latter part of the book, however, and the fascinating character of Sofia, so movingly drawn in the first novel, gets short shrift as Isaac takes a more prominent role in what seems a concession to SF megatext standard role-playing. All in all, a thoughtful mix of Jewish and Christian sensibilities, befitting its author's spiritual journey. (As a graduate of a Jesuit college, and a Jew by choice, I found this mix particularly appealing; I did not know of Russell's own background until after I had finished the first novel. At the risk of applying the "authorial fallacy," I do find that reading her own comments and the interview on amazon.com enriched my understanding of her goals in! writing these two works, and I wish her the very best as she continues her career, hoping she'll keep up inventive stories in whatever genre she next finds herself drawn to create and ponder the power of storytelling for instruction and entertainment. P.S. And I hope she gets her toaster and the Jebbies keep getting novices!)
am 21. April 1998
Mary Doria Russell's The Sparrow is one of my favorite books. Regrettably, its sequel, Children of God, is not as good a novel; however, it is not so bad as to retroactively ruin its predecessor. Instead, it is a flawed work which still manages to display Russell's strengths as a writer--namely characterization, world-building, and an eye for the damage that ethical, moral, and religious dilemmas can produce.
At the end of The Sparrow, the Jesuit linguist Emilio Sandoz had finally fully disclosed the events of the mission to the planet Rakhat, events which broke his health, faith, and heart. This act was the start of his healing process, but he was still very far from peace or happiness at the close of the novel. The sequel takes up where its predecessor left off, tracing the further efforts to heal his soul. Emilio's superiors are convinced that this can only be done by sending him back to Rakhat, where, one tells him, "God is waiting for you, in the ruins."
It should not surprise anyone that Emilio does go back and face the consequences of the previous mission. Here both the strengths and the weaknesses of the novel are apparent. Pieces of the plot are problematic: in particular, the method the author uses to get Emilio to Rakhat is extremely transparent. In the Acknowledgments, she apologizes, stating that she could not think of any other way to get him there; I, for one, had already guessed this upon reading the scene. While I had already suspended a very large chunk of disbelief for a major revelation early on, I think that the author's hand would have been quite obvious in this case regardless. I was also jarred out of the story by some of the events prior to Emilio's trip back. In the first novel, terrible things happened to the characters, but they were a necessary part of the plot. However, in Children of God, some of the painful events do not appear to have been necessary to the story, and felt uncomfortably gratuitous.
Yet the trip back to Rakhat and the examination of events there display the better aspects of the novel, as well. One of the best things about The Sparrow was its people: Russell has a knack for illuminating the motivations and quirks of her characters, and while Sandoz was necessarily the best-drawn, the other characters were also lively and memorable. This skill is still in evidence, though the broader canvas of Children of God means that there is less in-depth examination of characters. While one or two fail to come alive (in particular, I found Carlo Guiliani less than believable, perhaps because his main function was as an animate plot device), Russell still generally manages to show the conflicts and influences that motivate her actors. Supaari and Hlavin Kitheri's various reasons for and reactions to the events of the first mission will be of particular interest to readers of the first novel.
Arguably the other best thing about The Sparrow was the world-building. Rakhat was an intriguing, complex, and detailed world, and seeing that world in upheaval generates a deeper understanding of its components. Further, the structure of that world helps generate the major theme of the novel, what Sol Weintraub called Abraham's Dilemma. The problem of the sacrifice of the innocent (particularly children) for the greater good is one that nearly every character must face, and it resonates throughout the novel on many levels. (Indeed, two characters discuss this issue with explicit reference to Abraham, and a key character is named after Abraham's son Isaac.) This recurring dilemma helps bring coherence to a novel which weaves a large and complicated story from a number of viewpoints.
I consider the other weak point of the novel to be the resolution of Emilio's spiritual problems. I found it unconvincing that Emilio would interpret and react to a certain event at the end of the novel in the manner described. While Russell carefully avoids forcing one interpretation of the event itself onto the reader, I still had a difficult time accepting its impact on Emilio as realistic.
Overall, Children of God is a decent book, but not as good as its predecessor. It presents an interesting alien society and then carefully examines the political, moral, and religious implications for the people involved. While some parts of the plot are rather problematic, the characters and the world-building keep the novel an interesting and generally enjoyable read.
[Originally posted to rec.arts.sf.written.] END
am 19. April 1998
Recently, I reread The Sparrow. I laughed, I cried, it's even better the second time around. Children of God follows the continuing adventures of Father Emilio Sandoz and the intertwined relationship between the beings on the Earth and the beings on Rakhat. I liked the Rakhat sequences much better than the Earth sequences. The changes that the humans effected on Rakhat (both the deliberate ones and the not-so-deliberate ones) were very interesting to follow. The Sparrow follows the broken Emilio's journey from wholeness to near-destruction during a first contact with a planet with two sentient species. Children of God explores Emilio's coming to terms with his different new life, and his inevitable return to Rakhat. In many ways, I didn't find the story on Earth very compelling. We meet some interesting characters, but the meat of the book is in following the parallel story on Rakhat. Rakhat undergoes many changes in the years after its first contact with humans, some of them good, but many of them are not. I wasn't sure what trick was going to be played on Emilio to get him back to Rakhat, I just had a bad feeling I wasn't going to like it. I'm not sure how you could have written around it, given how strongly Emilio didn't want to go and given the lack of transporter technology. ;-> The book is very well-written, but very serious and I missed the humor. The first book was really very funny in places and I found I didn't laugh nearly as often in the second. Much of Children of God felt like a meditation on the Old Testement, whereas much of The Sparrow felt like a meditation on the New.
am 8. April 1998
Mary Doria Russell"s first book, "The Sparrow", was an extremely readable work about the moral dilemnas encountered by a doomed Jesuit-sponsored mission to a distant planet in the year 2020, as told in flashbacks from the vantage point of 2060. It could be read as a retelling of the missionary-native encounters during the Jesuit missionary efforts in the 17th and 18th centuries in French Canada and in the Orient. But it was more. On a philiosophical and religious plane, it addressed the question of whether there is a God, or whether He is just an illusion we humans invent. And further, if God exists, why does He allow those who believe in Him so much to suffer so greatly. Add to this the apparently knowledgable discussion of biological and cultural anthropology and of linguistics which the author weaved into her story and into her plot, and you had a terrific read. Unfortunately, the sequel, "Children of God" is a letdown. The first book reached a catharsis by being very well plotted, having an array of interesting characters, and an ongoing discussion of heavy philosophical issues which were well weaved into the story line. We wanted to know what happened to the priest protoganist to make him so disillusioned. And we found out, and it was powerful. The sequel has some moments, but has too much copycatted material from the original, stereotypical characters, and absurd plot lines -- the space trip which returns the priest to the planet has all of these faults -- to make for an interesting novel. Also, the resolution at the end of the sequel has none of the power of the original: if bad things happen, well, offer them up. In short, this sequel doesn't fly.