Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Musings: Children of God

Children of God
Children of God, by Mary Doria Russell, is the sequel to her science fiction novel The Sparrow.  I loved The Sparrow and the way it made you really think about the unintended consequences actions can have.  This is even more true in Children of God, which explores, among many other things, the terrible consequences of miscommunication.

Children of God begins again with the fabulous character of Emilio Sandoz, one of the most fascinating people I will never have the pleasure of meeting.  He is being pressured to return to Rakhat, but he is certain he does not want to.  Not only does he have horrible memories of the place, but he also wants to leave the priesthood.  And marry a lovely woman.  But another fate awaits him, and he is taken back to Rakhat to confront his past and face the consequences of the actions he and his friends took on Rakhat..

I don't know how to approach the review of a book like this one because it is so complicated.  Not only is there no way I could cover all the themes presented in it, but I also have a very real fear that I didn't understand much of what was going on.  I understood the main plot of the story (I think), but this is one of those books that is about so, so much more than the plot.

I think Children of God is even more complex than The Sparrow.  In addition to the themes presented in its predecessor- of exploration, exploitation, cultural exchange, guilt and religion, to name a few- we also have redemption, extremism, anger, justice and emancipation.  And music.  Saying that, it may seem strange for me to say that I didn't enjoy this book nearly as much as I enjoyed its predecessor.  Perhaps because for me, The Sparrow was surprisingly delightful.  I approach all books about religion with a certain skepticism, worried that the author is trying in some subtle way to convert me.  And as I knew The Sparrow was about a Jesuit mission to a foreign planet, my hackles were up even more.  But The Sparrow was so much more than a book about missionaries.  It was full of vibrant, wonderful characters with strong opinions that never lost their senses of humor.  It was a book about friendship.  That perfect harmony of connecting to another person and knowing that you understand each other.  Yes, religion was there, and yes the book tackled very Big Important Themes.  But there was the friendship and the humor and delight to temper that.

Children of God does not have that.  There are so many new characters- too many, in my opinion- and they are not really fleshed out.  Emilio is (understandably) emotionally unreachable for most of the book, so the relationships are not formed on trust but on mutual fear and wariness.  The characters on Rakhat often have pages of philosophical introspection that are interesting at first but eventually lead to mental exhaustion.  I missed the sparks of witty banter, dirty jokes and general good humor that brought The Sparrow to life.  Instead, readers are given the grim reality of an entire planet at war, of emancipation and revolution gone to terrifying extremes.

There is much to like in this book.  There are idealists and heroes, idealistic heroes turned villains and villains turned wonderfully, painfully human.  It's a book that cries out for discussion- I get the feeling Russell wants to facilitate debate amongst her readers that result in the strong friendships, witty repartee and forward-looking conversations that populate so much of her story.  And I appreciate that.  But I did not fall in love with this book the way I did with The Sparrow


  1. I have owned this book forever and still haven't read it... I could never make up my mind if I liked The Sparrow, so never read on. I always planned to give myself distance and then reread The Sparrow. Haven't done that yet either...

  2. I have both this book and The Sparrow, but have not read them yet. I have heard wonderful things about The Sparrow though, and the things you mention about it in your review make me want to read it right away. It also sounds as if this book may have been trying to do too much, and that is why it didn't live up to the first book's greatness. Though it wasn't the better of the two, I am still really intrigued by this book, and from the way you discuss it, it sounds like it would be a really complex and thoughtful read for me too. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on it with us!

  3. oh wow, you've piqued my interest, it sounds quite extraordinary. i think i'll add the sparrow to my tbr list. thanks!

  4. My edition of The Sparrow came with an excerpt of Children of God that so upset me (a plot twist was revealed, it seemed!) that I decided to pass on it. I hear you abt the large big philosophy -- some moments I think even The Sparrow went over my head.

  5. I'm so glad you posted on this. I just finished The Sparrow and loved it so much. I got a copy of this one, but I've been worried that reading it will be a disappointment. I think I'll read it, but I'll have a better idea of what to expect. Thanks!

  6. Kelly- If you didn't like The Sparrow, you probably won't like Children of God, so don't feel bad!

    Zibilee- I think you'd really enjoy The Sparrow, especially if you were able to discuss it with someone. It has a lot of theological debate that I feel would greatly interest you. Children of God has a lot, too, but it's not as fun to read.

    Monica- Ooh, glad to be of service!

    Audra- I am now intrigued by which plot twist you are talking about. I have a feeling it may be about a certain character reappearing, but I am not sure if I am right. And yes, a lot of The Sparrow was probably over my head, too.

    Avid Reader- I am glad you enjoyed it! I waited a pretty significant amount of time between books, so I wasn't AS tied to the characters of the previous books by the time I read Children of God. I think if you read the sequel too quickly, you might really, really miss the other characters.

  7. And now I can only think of Stargate..ok focus B, focus! Not gonna happen today it seems

  8. @Aarti -- it was almost 10 years ago (!!) that I read the blurb, but I think you're right. Your comment to Avid Reader makes me think maybe I shouldn't do a reread of The Sparrow (since I do recall the basic gist) and just pick up COG -- I might care less abt that plot twist that so worried me! ;)

  9. I haven't read The Sparrow, but I did recently borrow it from the library so now I'm super excited about it! I have no idea what to expect, but I think it should be a mind trip...

  10. I STILL haven't read The Sparrow even after years of kindhearted nudging by a good friend of mine. I plan to rectify that before year's end. I have a feeling I will enjoy The Sparrow as much as so many others. This one seems to be a wild card! :)

  11. I'm not familiar with either the Sparrow or Children of God, but I'm all for thoughtful science fiction, so I'll bear them both in mind for future reads.

  12. I thought The Sparrow was very good, but I don't think I could face the less fun version of it. :p Most of the people who've read both have also said they didn't like Children of God as much, so for the moment I'm content without it.

  13. I was very surprised when I read The Sparrow and found it made me laugh out loud. I think it was one of the things that made me love it so much-- how dualistic it was.

    I'm wary of reading Children of God. I don't want it to, not ruin but for lack of a better word, ruin its predecessor. I don't know :/

  14. You have articulated why Children of God is slightly disappointing to those who loved the Sparrow, I think--it's the surprise and delight. I just said this to my kids about watching Inglorious Basterds again--it'll be like the second time watching The Gods Must Be Crazy, I told them. The surprise is such a big part of the delight.

    I would also compare Children of God to Philip Pullman's third novel about Lyra, the series that begins so well with The Golden Compass. It tries to pull so many plot strands together that there's no story left to sustain the strands, just pulling. Children of God has a little of that.

  15. I'm so glad I found your blog! I loved The Sparrow, and I liked the Children of God too, but I agree with you - it isn't as good as The Sparrow. I have read these books a few times since a friend recommended them to me about 8 years ago. Your post has inspired me to read them again!

  16. I agree with much of what you've said here. There are SO many new characters introduced that it's hard to keep up, and I honestly don't find the VaRakhati as compelling, generally, as the human characters in The Sparrow. The overall feel of CoG is just different. I reread both it and The Sparrow last year, and I appreciated CoG more the second time around, but I don't think I'll ever love it as much as I do The Sparrow.

  17. Blodeuedd - Haha, understandable ;-)

    Audra - Yes, I think so. I think if you don't feel as attached to the characters from the previous book, it's easier to like this one.

    Steph & Andi - Yes, definitely a wild card, but a very enjoyable one!

    Tracy - This is basically the only science fiction I've ever read, but it's definitely thoughtful.

    Jenny - Yes, TOO much philosophy! I couldn't take it.

    She - I know what you mean by ruin but not ruin. I don't think Children of God ruined The Sparrow for me, but it definitely made me think differently about some characters.

    Jeanne - WELL, I have never watched Inglorious Basterds, so now I think I must...

    Spines and soles - Thanks for stopping by. I hope you get more from your next reread, too :-)

    Florinda - That's a good word, appreciate. I think it's like medicine- you know it's good for you but you don't ENJOY it.

  18. Anonymous5/11/2011

    I think it was you who first introduced me to The Sparrow which I've been meaning to read but haven't yet. I'm really fascinated by the whole concept especially since it's sf with religion thrown in. I read The Canticle of Brother Lebovitz and also Hyperion which both have strong religious themes running through which I liked, so looking forwarding to reading them.

  19. I loved The Sparrow - the religious aspect of it intrigued me and I'm a sucker for long shot dreams and group effort. The storyline captivated me and I loved all the characters, they were all so true to themselves.

    Children of God, not so much. There wasn't anyone other than Emilio that I "knew" or liked and what happened to him - to them all, eh. I did appreciate his wrestling with his faith aspect and those that were sent to try to help him but I'm pretty sure if I wasn't Lutheran that would leave me cold.


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