June 23, 2008

The Sparrow

The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell
Science Fiction
Arthur C. Clarke Award
1996 Fawcett Columbine Book (Ballantine Publishing Group)
Finished on 6/17/08
Rating: 4.5/5 (Terrific!)

Product Description

"A NOTABLE ACHIEVEMENT . . . Russell shows herself to be a skillful storyteller who subtly and expertly builds suspense."
--USA Today

"AN EXPERIENCE NOT TO BE MISSED . . . If you have to send a group of people to a newly discovered planet to contact a totally unknown species, whom would you choose? How about four Jesuit priests, a young astronomer, a physician, her engineer husband, and a child prostitute-turned-computer-expert? That's who Mary Doria Russell sends in her new novel, The Sparrow. This motley combination of agnostics, true believers, and misfits becomes the first to explore the Alpha Centuri world of Rakhat with both enlightening and disastrous results. . . . Vivid and engaging . . . An incredible novel."
--Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

"POWERFUL . . . Father Emilio Sandoz [is] the only survivor of a Jesuit mission to the planet Rakhat, 'a soul . . . looking for God.' We first meet him in Italy . . . sullen and bitter. . . . But he was not always this way, as we learn through flashbacks that tell the story of the ill-fated trip. . . . The Sparrow tackles a difficult subject with grace and intelligence."
--San Francisco Chronicle

"SMOOTH STORYTELLING AND GORGEOUS CHARACTERIZATION . . . Important novels leave deep cracks in our beliefs, our prejudices, and our blinders. The Sparrow is one of them."
--Entertainment Weekly

I have three brothers, so naturally I was outnumbered when it came to voting on television shows when we were growing up. Forget The Partridge Family, Family Affair, or The Ghost and Mrs. Muir. I got stuck watching episode after episode of Star Trek. I think that's when I decided I hated science fiction! I never ventured into the Sci-Fi section at the library or book store and honestly, I just couldn't understand the appeal.

Well, if it hadn't been for my online book group choosing The Sparrow back in 1997, I may have not only missed out on one of the best books I've ever read, but I would've remained stubborn about science fiction in general. Fortunately, I have gained a great appreciation for the genre and have gone on to read several more books, leaning heavily on the post-apocalyptic theme (as well as becoming a huge Battlestar Galactica fan). I initially thought The Sparrow was the first science fiction book I'd ever read, but then I remembered I'd read (and loved) Ray Bradbury's Dandelion Wine back in seventh grade. I also have a vague recollection of borrowing my brother's copies of Logan's Run and The Adromeda Strain, which I think I enjoyed as well, although the details are a bit fuzzy.

It's been over a decade since I first read The Sparrow and as with most of my favorite books, I'd been meaning to read it again for several years, but kept putting it off for something I hadn't read yet. When it came time to nominate a science fiction title for my face-to-face book club, I decided the time had come. I was very happy when the group voted to read it this past month. More importantly, I am happy to say that it withstood the test of time! It was just as enjoyable as the first reading. Maybe even more so since I wasn't rushing through the chapters, eager to see where the story was leading me. I read more slowly and paid much more attention to all the details. I was actually a bit surprised that I had forgotten so many! I was fairly certain of a few important plot points, but as it turned out, I had forgotten the specifics and was pleasantly surprised by the turn of events. It was almost like reading a new novel. However, the extrapolation of technology that had so intrigued me back in '97 wasn't quite as exciting this time around. Laptops and PDAs are such a big part of our lives now that I barely noticed the mention of similar devices in the book. Yet, in spite of the lack of technological thrills, I fell back in love with all the characters. It felt almost like a reunion of sorts, visiting with old friends of whom I'd grown so very fond.

The Sparrow wound up on my Top Ten list back in 1997 and everyone on my Christmas list received a copy that year. When I went to work for Borders Books & Music in Fort Worth, the book became one of my favorite titles to recommend (to customers and employees). I had recently returned from a small book conference in Cleveland where I met Mary Doria Russell and I was eager to tell customers about her upcoming sequel and the news of a possible movie (which, unfortunately, still remains to be filmed).

If you're one of those people (as I was) who swear they'll never read any science fiction, don't be too quick to dismiss this remarkable book. The author has created some wonderful characters that will stay with you long after you finish the book. The writing is both captivating and provacative, not to mention quite funny here and there. I've yet to meet anyone who didn't love it.


  1. Great review! I am "one of those people", but I added to my TBR and will give it a try. It does sound interesting.

  2. I loved this book and also Children of God. So glad you took a chance on this and liked it. It does indeed warrant a re-read. And don't even get me started on how great Battlestar Galactica is! My husband got me interested in SF when we got married. Once I realized that many books in the genre were really about "what makes us human" etc., I couldn't get enough.

    Glad you like Big Head Todd and the Monsters. I had to run out and get it right after I heard it too.

  3. Great review.... I've wanted to read this for some time and now you've really got me interested :-)

  4. This one sounds great! I loved reading your story about your conversion to science fiction.

    I find it interesting that people who would admit to enjoying books like The Time Traveler's Wife might still steadfastly refuse to read anything labeled 'science fiction'. I'm always interested in these 'gateway' books and this is one I'll be adding to my wishlist.

  5. Great review! I loved this book and also Children of God -- both very powerful and beautifully written. I haven't read anything by her, but I'm interested in her new book, Dreamers of the Day, which is supposed to be very good.

  6. I loved The Ghost And Mrs. Muir. My father and I watched it together. He had a crush on Hope Lange (?)

  7. Okay, Les. I put it on my TBR list. I hope I'm not going to be the first person that doesn't love it. :)

  8. Teddy Rose - Glad you enjoyed the review. I hope you do give the book a try. Let me know what you think, if you do!

    Terri B. - I enjoyed the first part of Children of God, but got bogged down with the second half. The first half was worth the price, though, don't you think?!!

    Yep, Balltestar Galactica is fabulous. I can't wait to watch Season 4 on dvd. Everyone tells me it's much better than Season 3. My husband got me interested in SciFi, too. I could spend an at least a year reading all the books on my SciFi TBR list. A Canticle for Liebowitz is at the top.

    Tasses - Thanks for visiting my blog. I've got yours bookmarked for future perusal. Let me know if you get to The Sparrow.

    Carl - I'm surprised you haven't read it! I am definitely a scifi convert and I have you to thank. I have so many titles on my TBR list that I've garnered from all your scifi challenge participants. Next up, A Canticle for Liebowitz. Or maybe Lucifer's Hammer. No wait, maybe I'll go with Wastelands or Time and Again. I could devote an entire year and never make it through my list.

    Robin - I really enjoyed Dreamers of the Day, but The Sparrow remains my number one favorite. You can find a review for Dreamers on my blog, as well as an interview with Mary. Just use the search window at the top of my blog.

    Bybee - Cute story about your dad and Hope Lange. :)

    Joy - YAY!!! I really think you'll like this one. Let me know!

  9. I used to read a lot of Sci Fi, but not so much in recent years. This does sound interesting - might have to give it a try. The fact that it's a re-read for says a lot. Thanks for posting about it.

  10. Anonymous2:50 PM

    I haven't reread The Sparrow myself since 1998, when I needed to make sure there was continuity between it and Children of God. What has been spooky to me, as the years have passed, is not just that the things I anticipated technically have become commonplace, but that the big political picture has come to pass. In 1992, there was no real hint that we'd be in a major east-west confrontation with Islamic militants, and I just guessed at the trouble in Sudan, but now there's Darfur, and there are Jesuit missions on the periphery of the conflict. The security restrictions are in place. We're in the second Iraq war instead of the second Kurdish war, but jeez, I was only off by a couple hundred miles...

    Anyway, thanks for the continued support. I really appreciate it, Lesley!


  11. Suzi - You're in for such a treat. I'm envious of those getting to read it for the first time!

  12. Mary - I've so enjoyed talking-up your books to anyone who will listen! I can't wait for your next release. Hope the writing's going well.

  13. I'm not a fan of Westerns for much the same reason you dislike(d) science fiction--one TV and my dad chose what we watched on Sunday afternoons. It wasn't unreasonable by any means but it led me to really dislike John Wayne and Clint Eastwood! I have read a few Westerns that I've loved over the years though.

    I don't even remember why I read this in the first place but it was so good. I truly wish I'd had a book club to discuss it with. I'm not a huge fan of science fiction either but this was focused so much more on the characters, the science fiction-y part didn't bother me at all.

    1. Jen, I'm not a fan of Westerns, either. I read All the Pretty Horses, but can't think of any others I might have read. Lonesome Dove has been on my list for decades, but it just isn't calling to me. As far as sci-fi, I'm really glad I decided to give the genre a chance. I'm not a huge fan, but I have read several books in this category that I can say were very good. Thanks for commenting on such an old review. It was fun to reread it and the comments. I'd completely forgotten that the author (MDR) had commented here!


I may not answer your comments in a timely fashion, but I always answer. Check back soon!