In 2019, a researcher working at Arecibo in Puerto Rico discovers extraterrestrial life. What he heard was beautiful singing from the planet that would come to be called Rakhat. The Society of Jesus quietly, but quickly, organised an expedition to this planet of singers. A catastrophic end to the mission leads the sole survivor, Emilio Sandoz, to be blamed for heinous crimes. But what really happened on Rakhat, and how does someone who might once have been considered a living saint become someone who became a whore and child killer?
“He had also discovered the outermost limit of faith and, in doing so, had located the exact boundary of despair. It was at that moment that he learned, truly, to fear God.”
First and foremost, The Sparrow is a tragedy. It never hides that from you. It tells you from the very, very beginning that the journey you are about to read about is going to be a devastating one.
It doesn’t disappoint.
I am so utterly devastated right now. I knew it was coming, only someone who has never read anything before,ever wouldn’t know this end would be coming. I had about 400 pages with which to prepare myself, with which to bring up my defenses. It wasn’t enough. I highly recommend this if you want to lose yourself in some tears.
The Sparrow may seem slow at that start. That is okay. It is slow at the start. Russell had to introduce a lot of characters, and she takes her time to do that. Which makes it all the more heartbreaking. Because you know from the beginning that Emilio Sandoz is the only survivor.
The story is presented in a way where chapters focus on either the “past” or the “present”. You’ll have a chapter, or even several chapters in a row, that introduce you to some of the best people ever. They’re so kind, they’re so amazing. You fall in love with them. They become your family. And then you get to a “present” chapter and your heart fucking breaks because you know there is a good chance that those people you just fell in love with?
Even if they stayed on earth, they would probably be dead because of the times involved to get to the alien planet and back. But because you know the book is a tragedy, and you know something awful happened on the planet (though you don’t know what yet), there is a solid chance they died horribly.
And there is nothing you can do to save them.
And the very best character of them all is the one who is vilified. Emilio Sandoz in the “past” chapters and the Emilio Sandoz in the “present” chapters are very different people. The past paints Emilio as a kind of Saint. He is everything you expect a priest to be: kind, helpful, willing to put his flock above himself. Everyone around him loves him. He is outgoing and funny, and he himself loves everyone around him even more than they love him.
Emilio truly believes that he is doing God’s will. That he was there to hear the alien singers, that he was able to get the voyage on track. That everything lined up just right so the eight of them could go on that journey perfect because God wanted him to go, them to go. And everything did line up easily for them. Too easily.
But the “present” Emilio Sandoz is completely and utterly broken. He is accused of being a whore and of killing a child (we learn this in chapter one). Physically, Sandoz isn’t in the best condition at the start of the book. He is suffering from severe malnutrition and scurvy. And his hands have been mutilated to the point where he can barely use them for anything. Emilio also no longer wants to believe in a God who allowed what has happened to him happen. He is soul-sick, which in turn is making him even more physically sick. Despondent, even.
How does a Priest go from near Saint to whore? How does he give up on god? Is he, like others speculate, looking to find God even in what has happened to him and those of his party? Read and find out, because you have to. I told you to.
The Sparrow is extremely religious, but I implore you to read it even if you aren’t. I am not religious. I have some knowledge of some religions, but not as much as anyone who practices those religions, even if they aren’t very consistent with their practices. The Sparrow is inclusive to all religions, even atheism. I don’t believe anyone of any faith would be offended or turned off by this story. I, myself, expected to be at the very least exasperated by some of the religious aspects of the story before I read it, and that never once happened throughout.
However, being a Jesuit is essential to the main characters. Emilio questions his faith. He is hurt more by the fact that God has seemingly abandoned him than by the fact that he was crippled and nearly died on that planet. He is continually searching his own beliefs, even before they get to the planet. And if you know something of the religion, you would probably get even more out of the Sparrow than I did. There are hints that are dropped about what is to come, caged in religious stories. Some of them I got, some of them I didn’t.
I said before it was slow to start up. But I love that. The writing of The Sparrow was just beautiful. It gives you time to become connected to the characters. It drops hints on you for what is to come that you may or may not notice. But mostly I love the fact that the slow beginning makes it feel like Emilio is lingering on the good times, the times when everyone is alive and he is part of a family. He is shying away from telling about the bad parts. And the bad parts are quickly told, they aren’t lingered over. Which is good because I don’t know how much more of that I could have taken.
There are bits of the story that I find unrealistic. But all of that was so easily overlooked by all the parts that weren’t unrealistic, and by all the parts that were just so, so good. The science is slightly questionable, though I have definitely read way worse. The planet is perfect for them, and they’re able to eat the food and breathe the air and handle the gravity – which makes things a bit too easy. They’re able to understand the locals given time, which again makes the story a bit to easy.
But that easy is such a good setup for the rest.
The Sparrow was an absolutely amazing story. I really recommend reading this story if you are at all interested in it. Or if you just want to cry. The story is designed to be read, and it is designed to destroy you. The revelations you find out are great and unveiled perfectly. The Sparrow works well as a standalone, but there is a sequel in Children of God. I loved reading this book, and I’m looking forward to the next.
Even if I am never, ever going to reread this. I don’t need that kind of pain in my life twice.