The Sparrow
by Mary Doria Russell
Review by James Walton

The first chapter of The Sparrow is so beautifully and competently written that I found myself grinning in anticipation despite the somber subject matter.

Unfortunately, Ms. Russell soon had me grimacing in agony as I realized how pathetically foolish and naive her characters are. Perhaps this is true to life, but it was difficult for me to accept these people as the crew of a starship.

But I am getting ahead of myself.

The Sparrow is the tale of Earth's first, ill-fated, interstellar mission. It is told in flashback form through the eyes of Father Emilio Sandoz, a Jesuit priest whose hands, mind and soul were shattered by what befell him on the planet Rakhat.

Through an odd twist of fate Sandoz is among the first to be privy to the information that his best friend, an astronomer, has discovered a civilization on a planet in the Alpha Centauri star system. Being a good Jesuit, Sandoz immediately decides he must go visit these people. Somehow he is able to convince the Catholic Church to spend billions of dollars building a starship out of an asteroid and crewing it with Sandoz's friends.

When Sandoz returns without his friends, the world has changed. Familiar young faces are now old men while Sandoz has barely aged due to relativity. What happened to him is still fresh in his mind despite 34 years passing on Earth.

Due to miscommunications Sandoz is labeled a pervert and murderer. He is still in shock but the world wants answers now.

The crew of the starship have much to offer such a mission. They are: Sandoz, the Jesuit priest, a 64 year old female physician, her husband a 64 year old engineer, a female computer expert who at one time worked as a child prostitute to survive, the awkward young male astronomer who stumbled onto the alien civilization and three other priests who performed various on board functions. I had difficulty in accepting them as the entire crew. I could not believe that there was no one aboard who knew anything about setting up and protecting a camp in a probably hostile territory. Despite all the preparation, the Jesuits never thought to add someone to the crew to take care of them. Someone not worried with linguistics or phylum. Someone whose job it was to make sure the crew survived.

Do not take these criticisms to mean that I didn't like The Sparrow. I loved parts of it. Though I cannot accept these characters as the sole crew of a starship, the book has some extremely well crafted sections. The characters are well drawn, hubristic, vulnerable and at times extremely irritating. I suspect that Ms. Russell originally wrote in a Command character but the other crew members mutinied.

(Totally as an aside, I kept wondering, if it was so easy to build a starship with existing technology, why hadn't someone built one long before? And if they did, what happened to it?)

I made the mistake of looking in the back of the book and seeing that a sequel to The Sparrow is planned for early 1998. (Actually, they call Children of God a "successor," which may be a separate storyline, but the cover art is very similar, etc.) The possibility of a sequel diminished my enjoyment of the first book because I hate to be left hanging. I am happy to report that The Sparrow is definitely a stand alone novel, as well as being outstanding.

There is another review of The Sparrow by Jim Mann.
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