Review: Children of God, Mary Doria Russell

[This review contains vague implicit spoilers for The Sparrow and no spoilers for Children of God.]

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.

[ Note: as of July 9, 2003, I haven't re-read The Sparrow since, so maybe it did retroactively ruin it after all. Fair warning. ]

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.

%T   Children of God
%A   Russell, Mary Doria 
%C   New York
%D   1998
%G   0-679-45635-X
%I   Villard
%O   hardcover, US$23.95
%P   436pp

Copyright April 18, 1998 by Kate Nepveu. Originally posted to rec.arts.sf.written.

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