By Mary Doria Russell
Paperback, 483 pages
2016, Ballantine, 20th Anniversary Edition
When extraterrestrial life is picked up via satellite, a group of friends and colleagues lead by a Jesuit priest with a knack for learning languages, set off to make contact with the residents of a foreign planet. At first glance, the mission appears to be a success, until things begin to go wrong and after a series of social mishaps everything falls apart. The lone survivor, Emilio Sandoz, must now face judgment from his superiors and peers in Rome and tell the story of the tragedy that befell the party.
The less you know about the plot of this book going in, the better. I don’t think there’s any way my review will do this beautiful book justice, but I’ll give it a whirl.
First off, I want to say I read this book because Jacob recommended it after reading only the first 50 pages and that had me so intrigued, I had to buy the book. Then, I found out my friend Nicole had wanted to read it for some time, so we started a buddy read. I then promptly proceeded to fly past both of them. Really I am terrible at buddy reading, but I enjoy trying!
I will admit that I was wary about this whole Jesuit priest thing. Nothing against anyone’s faith – I just don’t tend to read many books where religion is prevalent. I was worried it would feel preachy or that I would feel isolated for not having the same views as the characters (why I thought this, I don’t know; it’s not like I’d feel isolated if reading about a barbarian because I have a non-barbaric lifestyle, I’m just silly like that.) That was certainly not the case. This was an exploration of one man’s faith and how the events of this mission affected his views on God.
This is a haunting and poignant book and the end had me crying like a baby (yo, I love when books make me cry). The set up to this interplanetary mission is a slow one, I’ll warn you. The party doesn’t arrive on the planet until just about halfway through the book. However, I found it was worth the wait. The first half of the book builds up the characters, so when the plot picks up and things start happening, you care about these people.
My only real issues with this book were how much it made my hands hurt (no, not from the weight of the book, but due to a certain scene which I think you’ll understand if you read it) and how willingly Emilio’s peers in Rome were willing to demonize him without really knowing what happened on the mission. I would think that having known him, they would have been willing to give him the benefit of the doubt – as a reader, once I was given some of his backstory, I was certainly willing to hear his side of the story before passing judgment. It was puzzling, but really, not a big issue.
I can’t wait to read the sequel – I’ll be ordering it this month and I hope it holds up to the standard The Sparrow set for me.
If you’re looking for a character-driven sci-fi that explores faith and raises interesting social questions about what could occur if humans did make contact with other life forms, and you’re ready for some feels, then I highly, highly recommend this.