Gar's Reviews > Children of God

Children of God by Mary Doria Russell
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U 50x66
's review
Sep 09, 2009

really liked it
Read in September, 2009

** spoiler alert ** This is twofer review, also including the first book "The Sparrow" as I pretty much consider them of a piece. Backcover-esque synopsis blurb: a Jesuit mission that's the First Contact between humanity and newly-discovered civilization right next door (relatively speaking, they're at Alpha Centauri) goes suddenly and horribly wrong.

Our hero's Emilio Sandoz, an agnostic Jesuit parish priest. Both books are written in a parallel structure in two different timeframes; the Sparrow runs parallel with the chronology of the small cast of characters who make up the first mission to Rakhat and how they came both to discover the radio signals and to the Society of Jesus-financed mission...decades later after he's been returned as that mission's apparently sole survivor, psychologically shattered, physically mutilated, a wreck of a man. The two threads converge to give a more complete picture of what happened and the course it took getting there, Sandoz's spiritual awakening and personal apocalypse both. It's a really thoughtful examination of the Problem of Evil, in an unpreachy non-denominational judeo-christian-framed way that doesn't stoop to easy answers. Some characters -try- to stoop to easy answers, but even they aren't convinced. There are reasons the "Problem of Pain" remains a problem.

Children of God picks up where The Sparrow leaves off; Emilio's shattered life starting to begin healing, but life's not done with him. Like its prequel, it's also structured in a parallel timeframe, with a bit more jumping around. It uses the structure better than the first book did--in The Sparrow it was mainly for dramatic effect, here, it uses the different timelines as a built-in and very appropriate way to examine a larger theme of how history is a wave that moves faster than the individuals in it (tangent: I think that phrase is yoinked from Kim Stanley Robinson's "Mars" trilogy, which I'm due a reread on sometime), here using relativistic time dilation effects of interstellar travel to make that even more literally the case. It covers the decades of time that passed on Rakhat after Sandoz was sent back, and the convulsive civil war that destroys and remakes the civilization there that was sparked by the mission's other survivor (omg spoiler!) and the characters the mission's lives touched, a war and revolution that's building inexorably to imminent species genocide of the once-ruling species there.

The larger themes examine the common narrative that everything has a purpose, and how if you accept that, there's the uncomfortable fact that if that's so, people are inevitably used in that purpose--and used hard, and cruelly. (A badly memory-mangled paraphrased quote from Aleister Crowley, I think--possibly some other early 20th century occult figure too, I ain't positive--kept coming to mind: "when a metallurgist seeks to purify an alloy of gold, he takes the base metal, heats it, hammers it flat, bathes it in acide, heats it again, hammers it again, over and over. He does not care about how the base feels about this process, only the result.")

There are definitely flaws--the author leans *way* too hard on the melodrama in several scenes, and you can just about hear generic tearjerker music swell at several points. I can sympathize with anyone who was tempted to stereotypically throw the book across the room when Sandoz and Mendes have a dramatic confontration at the second book's climax about the fate of the nearly-extinct Jana'ata *during a building thunderstorm and when it's resolved the storm passes* (I'd call that a seriously low point; I had no temptation to throw the book, though that was primarily because I was reading it on a kindle), but those flaws are overlookable for the quality of the whole.

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