Mary Doria Russell’s sequel to her astonishing debut, The Sparrow, finds Jesuit priest Emilio Sandoz still struggling with the trauma of the events that left him the only survivor of the mission to the planet Rakhat. He is beginning to be able to accept love and friendship and meaning in life to replace the hole left by his loss of faith, when the church tries to convince him to return - as the foremost expert on Rakhati languages and the only human being with any experience of the complex social structures of the two sentient species. Sandoz’ resignation from the society of Jesus and the priesthood leaves the leadership with a dilemma; if Emilio’s return to Rakhat is vital to God’s plan, does this end justify the means?
This is another terrific book, with superbly drawn main characters and startlingly beautiful prose, that explores some deep philosophical questions - although mostly the personal, universal ones of belief, doubt and purpose. What drives us and how we come to terms with tragedy and failure and loss and injury. It is about forgiveness, of others and of ourselves.
There is one Big Issue touched upon; should contact with a pristine culture respect their social structures and allow harm to some of its members to continue, or try not to intervene at the risk (perhaps certainty) of destroying it? Leaving aside the fact that change from contact may be inevitable, this book makes no easy answers; Rakhati society is turned upside down - quite literally, with the ‘oppressed’ becoming the new rulers and the previously dominant species possibly facing total extinction and, in any case, a decades-long war with millions of casualties.
The book is not without fault. The space travel took me out of suspension of disbelief somewhat; while the idea of relativity is well used, there is only the merest attempt to make the travel realistic (gravity approximated by the acceleration of the ship), while the ‘crew’ (who seem more like passengers) cook meals on a stove and drink wine from glasses.
There also seems to be an odd gap, perhaps an omission due to editing. The storyline featuring Sofia Mendez, thought killed with the the rest of the mission in the first book is riveting as she teaches Runa a different way of life than subservience and her son Isaac - a severely autistic savant - explores the music of Rakhat and of Earth. They disappear from the story for several decades (if not many pages, due to the way the book is structured) and this feels like a loss. More could be made of Sofia’s transformation into the stateswoman she becomes and, in Isaac’s final brief appearance, he seems reduced from the fascinatingly focussed person we knew to some sort of holy fool happy to impart his message.
More importantly, some of the conclusions are, perhaps, a little pat. While in The Sparrow the question of whether the events were simply a combination of chance and human agency or part of God’s plan is left satisfyingly unclear and open to interpretation, here there is a rather blatant authorial shove in the direction of the divine.
Despite these flaws, The Sparrow and Children of God (which are very much as a single work) are wonderful reads and explorations of belief and morality. I am someone to whom the concept of a higher power is quite alien, but the struggles and motivations of those characters with such a thing at their core was made real to me.