The Sparrow

Mary Doria Russell
The Sparrow Cover

The Sparrow


Humanity discovers sentient life in a nearby solar system. A Jesuit mission is first off the mark to overcome the technological issues and travel to this planet to meet the neighbors. The mission ultimately fails and the sole survivor returns to earth, damaged both physically and psychologically, to explain what happened.

While there is a strong religious component to the novel, it is not a purely religious story. Rather, it is the story of first contact including the missionary aspect that characterized much of history on earth, for better and for worse, when cultures first met.

I enjoyed the dual narrative style of the book. Following the story of the mission to Rakhat, which for the most part is positive and hopeful, offsets the grimness of the after effects and investigation 40 years later. There are many characters to keep track of in both time lines, but most are distinctive and Russell does well establishing their back stories and individual perspectives. I enjoyed the build up to the discovery of the alien civilization as we follow the characters and their intertwined lives in an almost leisurely way, including sitting in on their dinner parties.

One aspect that didn't really work for me was also a key element of one of the time lines. There is a lot of build up in the post-mission investigation, but ultimately I wasn't that surprised or shocked by the big reveal as at least some of the characters were. I'd figured out where things were going since there was plenty of time and foreshadowing in the story. So, there wasn't any feeling of payoff for having gone on this journey with the character(s). Further, I didn't find it reasonable that most of the characters were so narrow-minded to assume that there was only one interpretation to the events on Rakhat especially since none of them had been present and they were dealing with an entirely different civilization.

Mostly, I liked the story of the journey to a new planet and meeting an alien culture. Even though you know from the start that things end very badly, the tale of how they get there is a compelling read.