Russell's sequel to The Sparrow is an unfortunate one.  Not because it doesn't pack an emotional punch - it does; and not because the characterisation isn't once more brilliant - it is; but because it feels contrived.  The Sparrow is so perfect and whole unto itself, Children of God feels like a coda that shouldn't have been added; and this feeling continues throughout the work.

Russell's characters are, as aforementioned, still very strong.  They're cut from similar molds to those used in The Sparrow, those who don't cut across both novels, although we learn much more about Jana'ata other than Supaari (who is, as is repeatedly made clear, not the norm) through a variety of Jana'ata viewpoints (in a similar way to that in which we had multiple Runa viewpoints in The Sparrow).  The characterisation is strong and shot through with both empathy and humour, to give a wide, strong cast; Sofia's role in the novel is played well, if striking the reader as a little contrived, and the characters of the second mission are a brilliant contrast to the first.  Whilst once again all Jesuits, they seem to have very different ideals and ideas, and this plays out across the novel in a rather interesting way; thus, Children of God has a second-contact narrative that opens up possibilities again in a way similar to that which The Sparrow did.

The plot is the problem; Russell is relying, here, on a number of events which are strongly implied to have taken place in one way in The Sparrow taking place a different way in order to open Children of God.  From the start, then, we feel like the rug has been pulled out from under us, and the author has lied to us; since we aren't being asked to deal with unreliable narrators, this is an almost insurmountable problem.  The contrivances continue throughout the novel - things are terribly convenient, time and again, with little or no regard for what could realistically happen, and Children of God just blithely ignores these for reasons of pathos or plot.  That the whole novel builds up to dramatic reconciliation and emotional highs is icing on the cake: The Sparrow was brilliant, in no small part, for its darkness and ambiguity, but Children of God is a kick in the teeth in that regard, with a much clearer, more simple message.

All in all, then, The Sparrow is an undeniably fantastic book.  Children of God is not the sequel it deserved, by any means; Russell fell down on the job, here, in my opinion.  A real shame of a novel.
I seem to be on a bit of a religious SF kick lately, along with my women-in-the-genre kick, although the former is less pronounced.  The Sparrow is definitely and defiantly religious science fiction, and incredibly good at that; a tragedy, but with closure, it is a fantastically written character-study as well as plot-based tale.  The novel is set with two timelines, one in the present of the novel presented as an enquiry into the events of the other timeline, the past; the interspersing of these events, and the (vague, ill-defined) knowledge of the horror the only character common to both, Sandoz, underwent in the earlier timeline, lends a certain inevitability and tragedy to the end of the novel, and a certain power to it as well.

The characters here are incedible; Russell has, in each timeline, a small ensemble cast, albeit focused on Sandoz, and uses them well, creating a large number of real people, including aliens.  In the "present", the cast are all priests, but from different backgrounds, with different understandings of God, and different approaches to Sandoz; they are in conflict, and this brings their characters out wonderfully, with not a single one of them actually evil (Voelker becomes much more sympathetic as the novel draws to its close, and we are lent insight into his mind); the others - Vince, John, and Brother Ed - are all similarly ambiguous and flawed, with some brilliant writing behind them.  In the earlier timeline, we have some brilliant romantic plotlines, which are dealt with... incredibly powerfully; the relationships between the characters - Anne and George, married for years; Jimmy, Sandoz and Sofia, in their love-triangle; Marc, Alan, and D.W., with their own emotions and feelings - allow us, once more fantastic insight into their characters.  The way we see the aliens is a real mark of the brilliance of The Sparrow: Russell doesn't make them human, but does force us to understand them, in their inhumanity.  It is a brilliant stylistic trick.  Finally, Sandoz, the character around whom the novel revolves, is so different in the two timelines, as to be nearly two separate characters; Russell's writing here is beyond anything I have seen before, because whilst the emotional level is so different - uplifted, faithful, joyful in the earlier, broken, depressed, horrified and damaged in the latter - but there is continuity, and Russell's empathy for Sandoz' character is horrifying and powerful.

The plot is almost second-string to the characterwork in the novel, because the characters are so powerful and effective; and yet the plot does have existence beyond the total impact on Sandoz.  Rather akin to Moffett's plot in Pennterra, but with a wider coverage, The Sparrow covers the story of the discovery of the first signs of extra-terrestrial life (music), through Jesuit plans to learn about it, to the practice of those plans.  That we know from the start of the novel that only Sandoz survived, and survived a broken man, means that the novel is known to be a tragedy; that Russell won't tell us what kind of tragedy, or what happened to break him so much, at the outset is only because she's holding it in reserve for a plot that is as uplifting at one moment as it is painful in another, a plot that really will break down the emotional walls.  The Sparrow does this brilliantly, with a slow-burning plot with a number of themes and little action; it's more about the process and the emotion than anything else, and yet it draws one along powerfully, because we care about the characters.

In the end, I can hardly recommend The Sparrow highly enough; the characters are so brilliant, and the plot so well-done in its support of the characters, that this is a real modern masterpiece, and deserves to have its name shouted from the rooftops. A fantastic, powerful and painful novel.


Squeaking of the GrimSqueaker....

February 2012

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