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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Great characters, good plot, so-so ending
This is something of a rarity among all the science fiction titles published every year: it's a highly intelligent work of literature. That said, plot still counts for something, and endings can make or break books. The fact that this remains a cult classic despite its uneven plot and weak denouement is due to the cast of vivid characters and the strength of ideas...
Published on Feb. 13 2006 by Bob Alexander

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3.0 out of 5 stars Problems
It's true that what I know about science you could put on the head of a pin and still have room for the Lord's Prayer, but riding an asteroid to a planet in another solar system? Even a science dummy like me should have heard of the possibility. This novel was not set far enough in the future (about 2020 for the trip) to make the space travel believable.
Many...
Published on March 7 2003 by Judith C. Kinney


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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Great characters, good plot, so-so ending, Feb. 13 2006
This review is from: The Sparrow: A Novel (Paperback)
This is something of a rarity among all the science fiction titles published every year: it's a highly intelligent work of literature. That said, plot still counts for something, and endings can make or break books. The fact that this remains a cult classic despite its uneven plot and weak denouement is due to the cast of vivid characters and the strength of ideas expressed, which (ironically) only serve to make the "what the...?" ending even more disappointing.
And those characters! One of the reviewers here said she would like to talk to the entire crew; hell, I want to go with them. (Although I don't want their typical fate at the end.) The depth of religious and philosophical discussions and ruminations nearly makes up for the other flaws, and sets this book well above standard sci-fi fare.
If the ending had been stronger, this would have been a five-star book.
Another intelligent new book for your consideration: An Audience for Einstein. Set in the near future, Mark Wakely's book chronicles the "rebirth" of a genius by questionable means, in a highly entertaining and surprisingly touching story that (like The Sparrow) will stay with you
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2.0 out of 5 stars But the characters are all so stupid, April 7 2004
By 
Tom Munro "tomfrombrunswick" (Melbourne, Victoria Australia) - See all my reviews
This review is from: The Sparrow: A Novel (Paperback)
In years gone by the Jesuits travelled far and wide trying to convert civilisations to Christianity. Jesuits were men of considerable learning and they became the friends of Emperors in such places as China and Japan. It is not clear if they actually were particularly succesfull but their travels make interesting reading.
This novels pushes the process to a future in which a Jesuit expedition travels to a star which has broadcast radio signals suggesting that it has intelligent life. The book is not linear but starts off with one member returning alive with his fellows killed. His hands have been mutilated and it is thought that he killed an innocent member of one of the species on the new planet. The book is broadly a gradual (some might say glacial) revalation of what happened on the expedition.
The writer is unusual in that she was a university academic who turned to writing fiction late in life. As a result the book is poignant with issues. How can a benevolent God create a universe in which there is suffering and so on. The structure of the book consists of intertwining the events as they unfold plus an inquiry which takes place some sixty years later as to whey the expedition fails. The main character who is the Jesuit priest who comes back with the mutilated hands is infuriating. For chapter after chapter one constantly exclaims, why can't you just say what happened. However we have to work to a gradual climax which only really unfolds in the last 100 or so pages of the book. In fact the last 100 pages or so are quite gripping but for the initiall 400 or so one just thinks continually of the main character, let it all out, you will feel better, but for the point of view of dramatic development we are kept guising to the end.
The book has other anoying aspects. In reality no one would send off an expedition to a distant planet with people hoping off and talking to new sentient life forms. Look at what happened when the Spanish went to South America and the diseases they transferred to the Indian population killed 80 to 90% of the local population.
However the book looks back to the time of when the Jesuits sent missions to China and other places rather than being grounded in the present. The behavour of the main characters is also irrational. They are poor at understanding the nature of their enviroment and its pitfalls. The questions they ask to their new friends are poorly directed and give them no understanding of the problems they may face. History shows that real expolorers were somewhat more robust.
The character who survives also wines so much. It is true that he has a rather bad time but many people in life have a hard time. He tends to exhibit maudlin self pity rather than being a person who is truly reflecting on the nature of the universe and its compatability with a benevolent creator.
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4.0 out of 5 stars A bird in the hand, March 23 2004
By 
Red Robin "bibliophile2004" (Brighton, MA United States) - See all my reviews
This review is from: The Sparrow: A Novel (Paperback)
This is one title I've known about for years. Intrigued by the book cover and the description, but somehow always steered myself away, most likely by the science fiction element. A huge fan of sci-fi in my youth I've since become immersed in other genres. But alas, ever the student of popular culture, once I heard it was being adapted for the screen I decided to give it a second look. All in all, worth the read and I am anticipating reading Children of God. The scholarship in this book is quite evident. Coherent character development and cogency of plot, less so. Russell takes on a very ambitious project here and she is a talented writer.
Now for the quibbling. I had several issues with some of the book's major points. Characters are arguably the most important element of any good story. And these characters didn't seem quite real, more archetypes serving various functions within a cohesive whole. Anne in particular, bothered me. Her gung-ho, outrageously candid den-mother didn't ring true for me. She basically seemed like more of a catalyst for the less frank and more emotionally stunted characters. And what ultimately happened to her and D.W. really seemed to have been inexplicably glossed over for some reason, which I found quite odd as well as frustrating. George was barely developed at all. And certain revelations about other characters, D.W. especially, were way out of left field and generally unnecessary and pointless. But then, of course, there is Emilio. His Job-ian role as a vessel for human suffering is an unenviable one, to be sure. Ultimately I think he pulls it off by behaving in a realistic way, in a fashion anyone who suffered such pain and indignity would behave. The story hinges more on his believability as a character, and his reaction to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, than anyone else's. And toward this end, Russell triumphs. The story itself is still an engrossing read rife with possibility and absorbing detail. And it brings much to bear on what it means to be human. Or humanoid.
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4.0 out of 5 stars A very good, though slightly flawed, book, Feb. 17 2004
By 
Richard C. Gray "rich_c_gray" (Ithaca NY) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
This review is from: The Sparrow: A Novel (Paperback)
Reviewed by Richard Gray
[...]
Father Emilio Sandoz, a Jesuit Priest, is a master linguist who has been ordered by his superiors from place to place, learning languages and helping the poor and unfortunate for the glory of his God. When he is allowed to return to his home town in Arecibo Puerto Rico he befriends Anne Rice, a physician; her engineer husband, George; a young astronomer, Jimmy Quinn; and a former child prostitute turned computer expert, Sofia Mendez. On August 3rd, 2019 a radio transmission is picked up at the Arecibo dish from intelligent life on another planet. Jimmy Quinn is the first to hear it, and, against protocol, Jimmy's closets friends are next.
From the instant Sandoz hears the people of Rakhat singing from 4 light-years away he is convinced in the need to meet them for the glory of his God. He and his Jesuit order stop at nothing to put together the first mission to the planet and the crew ncludes himself, three other Jesuits, and his skilled friends from Arecibo.
Despite initial success, the mission goes horribly wrong. When a government led mission arrive they find Sandoz with brutally mangled hands, living as a prostitute, and standing over the body of an alien child he had just murdered. Sandoz returns to earth, disgraced, and it is up to his Jesuit superiors to try and find out what happened.
The book is written from the point of view of two different time periods, alternating from chapter to chapter. One follows Sandoz as a broken man being questioned about the mission, and the other shows how the mission unfolded and what really happened. This approach to telling the story works perfectly for the plot and everything from chapter to chapter is masterfully paced.
The reader is immediately hooked by the question of what made Sandoz go from a devoted priest that believes his God is lovingly guiding his life, to a man who is physically broken and has come to hate God. As the details of the mission are revealed the answer to that question may shock the reader.
The writers strength is in creating her characters, their motivations, and in creating the Rakhat landscape and culture. The interaction between the two intelligent species on Rakhat is well thought out. Jimmy Quinn is the perfect characterization of a physics graduate student, and Anne Rice and her husband remind me of people I have met in academia. Though I am no expert on Jesuits, Jesuits have apparently embraced Russell's characterization of them as being accurate.
This is all around a beautiful book and among the books that I've read in the last year this is one of my favorite. However, to be honest, despite how much I liked it, there are a number of flaws throughout the book that I think potential readers should be made aware of. These problems include a few spots were the writing becomes unclear, some technical problems in the plot, and that her characters' dialogue can sometimes be a bit annoying. I'll explain below.
There are a few spots here and there that aren't written as well as the rest of the book and you'll have to re-read to figure out what just happened. There are only a few of these instances that I noticed, and they only last a paragraph or two, but at least one of them came at an important point in the plot. However, the book is good enough that even really picky readers will probably forgive these bad spells and gladly keep going.
There are also technology related problems in the plot that will annoy scientists or people with technical training. For example, Sophia Mendez is supposed to be some fabulously expert computer programmer called a "vulture". "Vultures" supposedly can write computer programs so well that they can replace people at their jobs, and people tend to get nervous whenever a Vulture is hired to study what they do. However, I've done some computer programming in my time, and there is absolutely nothing that Sofia does that regular old hackers like myself couldn't do. It is particularly annoying that Sophia gets called in to write a program that can do Jimmy Quinn's job. As a physics graduate student myself, I can tell you that Jimmy would have written that program himself a long, long time ago without Sofia's help. As far as other technical issues are concerned, I think she handles the Special Relativity well enough in the story, but there are other ideas she puts forth that I don't think are actually physically possible. But, then again, I guess this is science fiction, and in comparison to a Star Trek or a Star Wars novel the science in here is solid
Sometimes the Character's dialogue, though I think it is realistic, can get a little annoying. Russell has gone out of her way to try and give her characters interesting backgrounds, accents and dialects. She succeeds. However, reading a passage with a realistic portrayal of a Texan spouting folksy sayings is just as a bad as sitting on a bus next to a real Texan spouting folksy sayings. You may want to strangle them before you get to your stop, and in the book you might want to pop a cork in the character D.W.. Also, when the characters are chatting and joking around with one another it sometimes reads like a transcript of a conversation from a dinner party you weren't invited to. Annoying.
Despite the flaws I just mentioned, this is still a very good book. As Russell revealed more and more about Father Sandoz and what happened to him I really couldn't put it down. I read the last hundred or so pages in one day, and added the sequel "Children of God" to my list of books to eventually read.
Richard Gray
[...]
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5.0 out of 5 stars Breathtaking and Heartbreaking, Jan. 25 2004
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This review is from: The Sparrow: A Novel (Paperback)
I am a science-fiction reader, so I picked this up as a science-fiction reader expecting it to fulfill my taste for a book about exploring new worlds, meeting new species and cultures, and making a human mark upon those new worlds. This book is, indeed, all of these things, but it is so much more.
I am also a literary fiction reader. I did not expect this part of my readership to get anything from this book, but I was wrong.
This book, about a Jesuit party exploring an unfamiliar planet with unfamiliar peoples from our very own galaxy, is about love, loss, faith, God, testing faith, human flaws, alien flaws...so much more than just exploring an alien planet and alien peoples. This book will test your beliefs in the nature of God, and his role as caretaker of the life He created. It also shows how good people aren't completely good, and "bad" people aren't always as bad as they seem.
If you're not a science-fiction reader, you will not hate this book. You will, in fact, look beyond the science-fiction elements (which would not be overwhelming to someone new to the genre) to the greater, deeper story. It is beautiful, breathtaking, heartbreaking and powerful.
This was recommended to me by a fellow co-worker, and I'm so glad I finally got around to reading it.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Great Book, But Great Characters??, Jan. 12 2004
By 
Michael A. Kopp (L-5) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
This review is from: The Sparrow: A Novel (Paperback)
I picked this up based on the recommendations of friends and reviews on Amazon, as well as the interesting premise of a Jesuit mission to the stars. Granted, it's just following the tradition of a lot of older sci-fi in reimagining the events of the last 500 years of human history on a grander scale, but it's a fairly unique look at contact stories and I was excited to read it.
All in all, I wasn't disappointed. The tone, though occasionally melodramatic, is introspective and thoughtful, and there are a great deal of rich observations in the book. The lighthearted tone of the flashback sequences is nicely contrasted to the pain and confusion of the main character's present. Despite the novel's reliance on Christian symbolism, it never feels moralistic or preachy, and indeed is a pretty balanced look at Catholicism.
And despite its cerebral aims, the story is quite engaging, as one may well imagine. The characters are fairly well-imagined and likable (though see complaint below). And the plot is interesting and well-balanced, with enough surprises and anticipation to keep one turning the pages rather rapidly. Really, only two things bothered me.
One: I was occasionally put off by the way the author ignores what would likely be serious technical and biological hurdles to the mission by simply writing them out of existence(they can breathe the air and eat the food, there are no diseases, the aliens speak a language which actually operates like a human tongue, etc.). However, the aim of the novel is not to describe as realistically as possible a probable attempt at contact but to meditate on real-world anthropology and religion by means of a sci-fi setting, so I suppose this is not really a problem.
Two: Despite what others have said, I do not think this novel is populated by a batch of well-rounded characters. There are a few well-rounded characters who have interesting histories and unique personalities. Even some minor characters have, or appear to have, interesting back stories and responses to the central movement of the novel. And among the main characters there are several strong personalities. However, I think there are also several problem characters, even among the main group, and some characters whose personality seems to be simply an extension of the author's. Not that this is a bad thing, but when you have quite a few characters who all make the same sorts of witty comments, it gets a little repetitive.
But this is getting a little negative. I wouldn't have even said anything about it if other reviewers hadn't specifically mentioned the great characterizations and perhaps just left me expecting too much. This is a really good book and I highly recommend it, and plan to do so anytime I run across someone who I think would enjoy it. But I just had to say something about those darn cookie-cutter people.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent--Engaging--Masterpiece!!!, Dec 19 2003
By 
monicae (Sacramento, CA USA) - See all my reviews
This review is from: The Sparrow: A Novel (Paperback)
I haven't been this enchanted by a book in quite some time. There is a lot wrong with this book but it is indeed a masterpiece. I was completely captivated by the plotting and characters. I will be thinking about its implications for a long time. This book is a triumph for Mary Doria Russell.
Random thoughts about the book (which in reality deserves an essay of analysis but...)
With the exception of anthropology, there really is no science applied in the book. Those details are either highly simplified (Sophia's expertise) or just plain ignored (the asteroid ship for example). Frustrating for a Sci Fi fan.
Another frustration was the shifting points of view. The story was supposed to be told in flashbacks and in real time. Russell gives the reader the points of view of the aliens. It is evident that Sandoz does not have the benefit of that point of view. It was included to help explain the alien's actions but in reality it pulls the reader out of the story. It was distracting.
The discussion of the Runa culture through the eyes of Sandoz was very good. They really did seem unlike anything on earth. The Runa came across as disorganized and subservient but intelligent, the Jana'ata came across as very violent, disciplined and highly intelligent. Both came across as strange and in the case of the Jana'ata...frightening. The end of the book seemed rushed in comparison to the rest of the book. The pacing of the last two chapters was off. I felt like the Jana'ata culture was under explored. We learned next to nothing about the singers and that was the entire reason for the expedition. Further exploration of the Jana'ata culture probably would have made Sandoz's plight and loss of faith much more convincing as well.
This is first book in a long time to get my mind racing, hence the highest possible rating. It was fabulous, engrossing, thought provoking etc. I highly recommend reading it. Exercise your mind.
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5.0 out of 5 stars A NEW CATEGORY IN LITERATURE?, Nov. 23 2003
By 
S. M. du Coudray (Portland, OR United States) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: The Sparrow: A Novel (Paperback)
I just finished two remarkable novels by an incredibly brilliant first time author.
The Sparrow was written in 1996 and it's sequel was written in 1998. I feel these two novels would be well served by a third novel in the series. They seem to be perfectly suited to being a trilogy.
The author has an outstanding background in anthropology, an incredible mind and a wonderful use of language.

I think I have never read a better novel dealing with the subject of radically alien races and cultures. Her solid academic background,
experience with religion, imaginative intelligence and authentic good sense contribute to a profound reading experience. After finishing the
second book, I felt bereft that it was over: somewhat like the way I felt after finishing The Poisonwood Bible.
The titles are: "The Sparrow" and "Children of God" by Mary Doria Russell.
They are classified as science fiction but they really need their own classification. Maybe social- science fiction would work.
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2.0 out of 5 stars I did not like the book, Nov. 7 2003
By A Customer
This review is from: The Sparrow: A Novel (Paperback)
I really enjoyed the first 100 pages - I thought the characters were well developed and the story line was OK. I enjoyed the book until our heroes found out about the mysterious civilization - the singers in Proxima Centaurs. From this point on the book was full of technical inconsistencies and story gaps and it was very annoying to continue. I somehow digested the fact that the alien life was found around the closest star to our Sun (very convenient, but well it happens), I also closed my eyes to some technical inconsistencies, but I said: "OK, the book does not focus on the technical side of the problem but on the emotional", so I was still willing to continue. The final drop in my frustration was the fact that after this great discovery the Jesuits are the one that sponsor the mission, not any Space agency, not the military, not the government - this is the first mission to another planet ever in Human history, this is the first alien civilization found ever in Human history. And instead of sending experienced people suitable for such pioneering mission they send a priest, a medical doctor and few scientists without any training? Not a surprise that the mission was a disaster... I can go on and on, but I will stop at this point. The bottom line is that I am very unsatisfied with the book.
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5.0 out of 5 stars For science fiction haters--and lovers, Oct. 7 2003
By 
J. Marren "jtm497" (Glen Ridge, NJ USA) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: The Sparrow: A Novel (Paperback)
If science fiction isn't youir usual genre, don't be put off--this work is several cuts above usual science fiction fare. Radio signals are detected in outer space and the Jesuits--that's right--form an expedition and take off. The idea comes from the history of this Catholic order, who during the age of discovery several hundred years ago were often among the first Europeans to arrive in a foreign land--China, India, you name it. Russell tells a riveting story of a group of extremely talented men and women, who do everything in their power to learn the culture of the beings they meet, not interfere with the eco-system, trade peacefully, and merely report what they find. An innocent, helpful initiative, teaching the Runau how to grow food, leads unwittingly to disaster for all.
The story takes two tracks--one relating the actual experiences of the explorers, the other relating hearings held many years later where the Superior General of the Jesuits tries to get to the bottom of what happened. What makes the story special is the wonderful fully developed characters, the story of the spiritual journey of Emilio Sandoz, the main character, as well as that of the Jesuits on the trip, Sophia Mendes, Jimmy and married couple Anne and George. Also included is a very frank look at the struggles of those who take the vow of celibacy.
If I make this book sound too religious, it's not--if it sounds too science-fictiony, it's not--it's just a great read!
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The Sparrow: A Novel
The Sparrow: A Novel by Mary Doria Russell (Paperback - Sept. 8 1997)
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