Books Magazine

Guest Review! “The Sparrow” by Mary Doria Russell

By Appraisingpages @appraisjngpages

You have certain friends that you know so well, and they know you so well, that you take their word as solid gold. That’s how my friend Emily and I are. I’ve known her since I was thirteen and if there’s anything she knows, it’s good literature. So when she and our friend David both recommended I read The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell I immediately put it on my to-read list without a second thought. I finished it quickly and it’s now one of my all-time favorite books and got me addicted to the sci-fi genre in a new way.

Last month I featured local indie author David N. Alderman and the first book of his Black Earth series. When I heard that he was also a science fiction fan I basically didn’t stop emailing him until he agreed to read this book. I was so afraid that I had over-hyped it and that maybe it wasn’t as good as I remembered but he was so enthralled he offered to write a guest review.

Sharing books with friends near and far is definitely my favorite part of having this blog. I really do think that books connect people on a level unlike anything else and I love spurring on that connection. So I am now proud to share a review of one of my favorite books by one of my new book buddies:

Guest Review! “The Sparrow” by Mary Doria Russell

It seems, regardless of how self-publishing has opened the doors for writers to create and publish whatever they want, there’s still a serious lack of a certain type of fiction.  Edgy Christian Speculative Fiction. It’s a term I’ve coined in the last few months, and it seems to sum up the type of work that I both write and enjoy reading. Essentially, it’s Christian speculative fiction (science fiction/fantasy/horror/supernatural) with edgy themes/content – such as cursing, sexual content, violence, etc. Although themes themselves can be edgy, depending on what corner of the Christian community you’re venturing into. To some, the very thought of extra-terrestrial life on other planets is a blasphemy to God and the Human Design. To others, time travel is offensive because it seems to assume that we as humans are trying to take our destiny out of God’s hands and ‘fix’ God’s mistakes. And content itself can be thought of as offensive for a multitude of reasons – some of which are legitimate, such as someone being sensitive to such content – and some that aren’t legitimate, such as someone feeling like they just want to be a Pharisee and outlaw everything fiction-based that one wouldn’t involve themselves with in the real world.

But that’s really the point, isn’t it? We’re talking about fiction. Imaginary worlds, imaginary circumstances. Imaginary people. Sometimes fiction can portray people dealing with, perhaps, real life situations. Sexual immorality. An unbridled tongue. A violent temperament. Fiction has the power to bring these things to light and maybe reveal how the human spirit deals with these things. Fiction has the power to show how God – who is unfathomable – interacts with His creation. Fiction allows ideas to be conveyed in entertaining, provocative, and sometimes heart-wrenching ways.

It’s very hard for me to find fiction stories that convey these things AND include Christian themes. I guess maybe that’s why I set out to write such fiction. So when I come across fiction like this, fiction that tugs at the heart, that makes one relate to characters who are questioning God’s very existence and nature, fiction that allows me to travel to the far reaches of existence to interact with life outside our own – I get excited.

The Sparrow is one of these books, my friends. This book was recommended to me by Amanda Liston of this very blog, so I went to my local library and picked up a copy. Needless to say, I’m in her debt for convincing me to read The Sparrow. This novel is one of the best pieces of Christian science fiction I have ever read. I will say up front that a good portion of this review has spoilers, so if you haven’t read the book yet, wait on reading the rest of this post.

The plot of The Sparrow revolves around an intergalactic radio broadcast received by an observatory here on Earth. This broadcast is a stream of beautiful songs being sung from the planet Rakhat. The Jesuit order decides they want to venture into space and find the origin of this music, and so a team is assembled and sent to the alien planet.

In the beginning of the novel, we’re introduced to Emilio Sandoz, a Jesuit who is the only survivor of the crew sent to Rakhat, currently on trial for supposed crimes he committed while on the alien planet. As the novel unfolds – switching between Emilio’s debriefing (and somewhat inquisition) and the actual events that occurred – Emilio’s story is unraveled for the reader to find out why Emilio’s hands are maimed, why he is a wreck physically, mentally, and spiritually, and what really happened on Rakhat.

The preparations taken for the journey to Rakhat, and the actual travel there via a mining asteroid, aren’t the main focus of the story, although these pieces of The Sparrow help to introduce readers to the wonderful array of unique characters. The book centers most of its plot around Emilio Sandoz, a priest who has sworn celibacy and is looked on by the Jesuit order as somewhat of a saint in regards to his relationship and closeness to God. What is fascinating though is that by the end of the book, Emilio is questioning if God even exists, and if He does, Emilio concludes that God is a merciless monster.

Emilio’s struggle with priesthood, celibacy, and God’s existence are scattered throughout the story, but in such a real way that I actually became teary-eyed as, toward the end of the book, Emilio confesses to what actually happened to him on Rakhat – his horrific discovery that such a mundane act as planting a garden could bring two alien species into violence against each other, destroy most of his friends, and catapult Emilio into a sexually submissive nightmare he had no hope of waking up from.

The author’s voice does a great job of foreshadowing terrifying events throughout the novel which the reader can only speculate about until they actually occur. For example, when the author mentions that had Alan not died, he might have been able to warn everyone to be careful around Supaari, one of the alien characters. This foreshadowing is put in perfect spots throughout the book and sets up great intensity as you read and wonder what’s going to happen between all of the characters. In the beginning of the book, you are made aware that Emilio’s entire team perished and he is now the only survivor, but learning how each member dies – in nearly all unexpected ways – kept my interest throughout the whole novel.

I think the lynchpin that made the whole book interesting and terrifying and beautiful at the end was the fact that it was a simple garden that turned everyone’s ‘world’ upside down. I love the theory that if you were to travel back in time, the simple flap of a butterfly’s wings can alter the course of entire histories. In that respect, The Sparrow brings across, quite successfully, the fact that if one simple thing is altered or disturbed on an alien planet – a planet we humans know almost nothing about – it can cause a chain reaction leading to the very destruction of civilizations.

When first arriving on Rakhat, Emilio and his crew were incredibly careful about disturbing the ecosystem. But once they settled and realized much of the vegetation and atmosphere is akin to Earth’s, they think nothing of starting a small garden to produce food for them to live off. Little did they know it would forever alter the destiny of the small Runa village they took residence in. I absolutely loved this inclusion in the book. It really tied everything together. As did the fact of how horrific the themes behind the music Earth’s observatories picked up really were.

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