The Sparrow (The Sparrow #1) – Mary Doria Russell

Published July 28, 2017 by bibliobeth

What’s it all about?:

In 2019, humanity finally finds proof of extraterrestrial life when a listening post in Puerto Rico picks up exquisite singing from a planet that will come to be known as Rakhat. While United Nations diplomats endlessly debate a possible first contact mission, the Society of Jesus quietly organizes an eight-person scientific expedition of its own. What the Jesuits find is a world so beyond comprehension that it will lead them to question what it means to be human.

What did I think?:

I first found out about The Sparrow from the wonderful podcast Books On The Nightstand which is sadly no longer running. I will always be grateful for it however for introducing me to books like this which I may never have picked up in the first place. You may or may not have heard of The Sparrow, it’s not exactly a recent release being first published in 1996, but has had much critical acclaim over the years even winning the coveted Arthur C. Clarke award for science fiction in literature. To be perfectly honest, when I first started this novel, I really wasn’t feeling it. It’s definitely what you would call a slow burner but by about halfway through, I realised that both the plot and characters had got completely under my skin and I could not put it down.

If you don’t know what it’s about, you might raise your eyebrows cynically when I tell you and I only need to use three words. Jesuits in space. I knew you were going to make that face but stay with me here! Our main character is a Jesuit priest, Emilio Sandoz originally from Puerto Rico with a great talent for linguistics. He is chosen to be one of a team of people, all with individual talents of their own i.e. anthropology, medicine, science, diplomacy to go on a life-changing mission in space. Strange music has been heard and communicated to Earth and has been tracked to a particular planet, known as Rakhat. The group has been tasked with visiting the planet, meeting with the local alien lifeforms living there and researching as much as they can about their world for the purpose of science and obviously for the benefit of Earth if communication and trade between the two planets were to be an option.

However, when we first begin the novel (in the future, circa 2060 or so), we find that Emilio has returned from the mission alone with grossly mutilated hands and things that he absolutely refuses to talk about. He spent three years on Rakhat but around forty years have passed on Earth since he has been away. We switch between two different timelines, the present time where Emilio is being questioned about just what happened on the planet and the mission itself where we see the whole truth for ourselves. His story is both fascinating and terrifying and is a real emotional journey that encompass a number of themes – the different ways faith can show itself, love in all its guises, science and how we communicate with others and eventually, pure horror and hatred.

Let me just say this might not be a book for everyone, I completely understand that some people will just not gel with it and that’s okay, we can’t all like the same things, right? The slow but steady pace at the beginning might really put some people off but I think if you do manage to connect with the story, which I did when I pushed on, you could find something really astounding that will stay with you for a long time. I’m not the biggest fan of science fiction myself, I was one of those people that didn’t really love The Martian by Andy Weir but, to be honest, I haven’t read too much science fiction to be the best judge. When it’s done right, like its done here in The Sparrow, I could definitely be a convert. There’s a lot of characters to get to grips with and that can be quite overwhelming but they are all written so beautifully it didn’t take me too long to get my head round whom everyone was. The plot itself is so convoluted and intricate but so very clever, I’m in absolute awe of Mary Doria Russell’s writing ability and prose construction. It’s everything I wanted from a novel, the scientific parts are not too taxing/dry, the sad bits destroyed me and the horrific parts still play on my mind months after finishing the story. If you’ve read this, I’d love to talk about it, if you haven’t and love science fiction please, please give this a go!

Would I recommend it?:

But of course!

Star rating (out of 5):

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5 comments on “The Sparrow (The Sparrow #1) – Mary Doria Russell

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