BOOKS: The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell

I just finished this book. Has anyone here read it? Thoughts?

This book appears to be more obscure than I thought. It is a very compelling, at times troubling, story. I’m very interested in someone else’s take on it. Thank you.

I loved it–have you read the sequel? I like it even more–really the two books should be read together.

I find some of the writing to be a bit self-indulgent and overly cutesy–there is way too much posturing about how witty Emilio is and what wonderful rapport all these people have with each other. Of course I understand why she’s building that up–I’m just saying that she could have done it better. But it was her first novel, I believe, and if I would write one half as good I’d think I’d done a good life’s work.

I suspect that conservative Catholics will find the treatment of sexual morality, especially masturbation, to be bothersome. I found it a bit annoying myself.

But aesthetically these are minor quibbles. The worldbuilding is amazing–it gets even better in the second book as you come to understand Jana’ata culture better. And Emilio’s spiritual struggle is very convincing. I think that the two books stand together as some of the best contemporary sci-fi, and certainly some of the finest examples of religious sci-fi ever–up there with Canticle for Leibowitz, Case of Conscience, and Speaker for the Dead.


I’m waiting for Children of God to arrive so I can finish the story. I agree with your observations. It has edges but life has edges. I was very moved by the intellectual honesty brought to bear on Emilio’s search. Many people might have trouble with this book. But I was totally swallowed up by the characters and philosophical implications the story had for each of them. I was literally moved to tears at one point. None of my friends or associates have even heard of it or its author. It should be more widely read than it is.

Thank you for the heads up on the other books. I look forward to exploring those as well. How you compare them to The Sparrow?

I couldn’t stand it. It was depressing, crude and without credible characters IMO.

I agree it’s not for everyone. The characters are among the most highly developed and credible that I’ve read in 50 years of reading. I guess we don’t all like brussels sprouts either.

Just started Children of God and bought Canticle for Leibowitz for down the road. Thanks for the heads up. Fascinating genre.

They’re all very different. Case of Conscience is perhaps the most similar, though it’s darker in a way (not as horrific things happen, but it’s more cynical). The author was an agnostic. Basically a Jesuit priest discovers a sentient race that seem to live perfectly virtuous and happy lives but are totally irreligious.

Canticle for Leibowitz is the most overtly Catholic, although as another poster pointed out on another thread the author later lost his faith and even Canticle has a certain ironic, cynical edge to it. In some ways it’s more about human sinfulness and cultural instability than it is about the Faith per se, but I think the novel is clearly Catholic in its sensibility (euthanasia, for instance, is seen as an example of the desire of technologically sophisticated humans to avoid suffering and retreat from our own humanity–at least that’s how I read it). It focuses on a monastery in the Southwest which preserves culture and learning when our civilization is destroyed by a nuclear holocaust.

Speaker for the Dead has less about Catholicism per se (though the sequal, Xenocide, has a heroic Catholic missionary as one of the characters), but it takes place on a planet settled largely by Catholics, and concerns the humans’ relationship with a sentient alien race. (It’s a sequel to Orson Scott Card’s more famous book Ender’s Game.) It has a rather sympathetic view of Catholicism, even though the author is a Mormon and the novel’s depiction of Catholicism is based largely on Card’s experiences as a Mormon missionary in Brazil!


Edwin, I just finished Children of God. I agree with you that it is better than The Sparrow but that they must be read in the proper order. Both books are essential to understand the story. They are not for everyone. There are certainly some troubling scenes and behaviors that would cause many to shut down and forget it. But the overall treatment of good and evil, human nature and God’s dealings with His creation more than countervail the tough parts. But that’s just me. Some others I’m sure may have different sensibilities. I must admit that I was VERY moved by these books. They are deeply philosophical and also tell a great story. Thank you for the “heads up”.

After these two books I have to “clean my palate” with some pragmatic nonfiction. Then I will attack Canticle for Leibowitz. It is sitting along with Case of Conscience on my nightstand ready to go. Again, thanks for your observations. These books don’t seem to have very wide appeal. But for the (adult) student of philosophy they are a “must read”…IMHO

I let a colleague borrow this book. He just finished it. He came in this morning and threw the book on my desk in anger. “This author has serious unresolved problems.” was all he kept saying. Because of his painful Catholic upbringing he couldn’t see the forest for the trees. He simply could not appreciate the overriding philosophical implications of this book.

There doesn’t seem to be a lot of ambivalence over this book. People get pretty amped up in one direction or the other.

If one doesn’t read ***Children of God ***as well, they can’t appreciate the story. I’m going to have to stop recommending it. It is apparently an acquired taste and few acquire it.

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