Mary Doria Russell's debut novel, "The Sparrow," is entirely deserving of the critical acclaim it has garnered since it was published in 1996.
Though it would properly be classified as science fiction, the book is more an examination of faith and how the questioning of one's faith can either strengthen or break it, depending on the circumstances. This is what makes it such an intense read: it leaves the reader with a lot to think about in between chapters. The philosophical aspects of the book and the focus on character detail, rather than technology, make the book a cross-genre star that will appeal to many different kinds of readers, not just those who are into sci-fi epics.
"The Sparrow" traces the life of Emilio Sandoz, a Puerto Rican Jesuit priest, his friends, and their expedition to Rakhat, an alien planet inhabited by the VaRakhati. The story begins in 2059, just after Sandoz's return to Earth. The only survivor of the expedition, Sandoz is as close to death and as far from God as he has ever been. He is under examination by The Society of Jesus, who want to hear his version of the events that took place on Rakhat. But that storyline ceases almost immediately, taken over by another, beginning in 2019, that details the birth of the expedition to Rakhat.
This is where I nearly put the book down. The discovery of the aliens in Alpha Centauri was too reminiscent of Jodie Foster's movie "Contact" from the 1990s for my liking. But by that point, I was too hooked on the characters to quit reading. Standouts from the cast include the snarky Anne and George Edwards, a doctor and her retired engineer husband who catalyze the group through dinner parties prior to the discovery of Rakhat (the dinner parties read like an extremely entertaining sitcom), D.W. Yarbrough, a one-eyed Texan Jesuit with a penchant for colloquialisms, and Sofia Mendes, a child-prostitute-turned-A.I.-analyst who initially agrees to go on the expedition to escape a terrifyingly possible form of modern slavery. Russell's well-honed, character-driven style of writing makes for a compelling read. The relationships between her characters are, for the most part, very rich. This style helps to smooth over plot details that seem slightly sophomoric; in particular, the death of two characters in an animal attack on Rakhat seemed contrived and forced, but even so, it didn't kill the story for me.
Taking advantage of the physics of space travel to flit back and forth between her various plotlines, Russell weaves an enticing tale that twists and turns, doubling back on itself and constantly revealing the reader's impressions to be wrong, similar to the way that her characters' impressions of the aliens turn out to be wrong. She is adept with her use of dramatic irony, giving the readers bits of information that the characters don't have and allowing them to revel, or cringe, at the tension.
Another wonderful facet of about Russell's writing is the depth and breadth of the world that she has created in her book; it's what sci-fi writers strive for, and she has accomplished it, envisioning two species, their anatomy and physiology, their social structures, and the evolution of their societal structure. She also has a cunning feel for languages, both real and fictional, sprinkling bits of Latin and Spanish throughout the narrative and manifesting the characters of the Runa and the Ja'anata through an adaptation of their imagined language structure into English.
To date, "The Sparrow" has won the Arthur C. Clarke Award, James Tiptree Jr. Award, Germany's Kurd-Lawitz-Preis and the British Science Fiction Association Award, and in 1998, Russell herself won the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer.
I was incredibly disappointed when I finished this book approximately 36 hours after beginning it. But guess what? There's a sequel, "Children of God." Guess I know what I'm reading this weekend.
Tyler Preston can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @tyler_preston.