Children of God – Mary Doria Russell

Someone bought me the sequel to the Sparrow for my birthday because I hadn’t got round to it quickly enough myself. Woo, free book.

I was a little worried going into reading this, because I loved the Sparrow so much that I couldn’t imagine anything living up to it. And I can tell you right now, it didn’t. But that’s ok. It’s a very different book, with a very different aim and completely different themes, and so it works more to complement the first book than to carry on its legacy.

What I loved about the Sparrow is that it was painfully, hand-flappingly, face-clutchingly, heart-wrendingly engaging. It makes you care so muchso damn much, that you love it desperately even though it makes you terribly sad. I think, even if she’d done it just as well with Children of God, to have that all again wouldn’t have been as effective as it was the first time around, because it would be what the reader was expecting. Instead, Russell has taken a completely different style – bad things do happen, I won’t lie (because saying they didn’t would be like saying GRRM won’t kill everyone you ever loved), but they’re not so raw and painful and open as they are in the Sparrow. I guess it’s like the Sparrow is the wound, actually cutting into your emotions and bleeding and raw and painful, then Children of God is the healing after. It still hurts and makes you sad, but it is ultimately good, and leads you to a better place. The structure of the Sparrow feeds into the sense of pessimism and despair that makes it so terribly emotional, and is a major part of what makes the book what it is. Children of God follows a much more typical chronological structure (with a little bit of foreshadowing here and there but not much), instead choosing to jump between geographies. Children of God gives you the slow progression and change leading to an ending, not the suspense and foreshadowing leading you to a painful revelation. And I think this balances beautifully. I suppose it’s as though the Sparrow takes you right down, and then Children of God brings you back up again (emotionally speaking).

In terms of the basics of books (writing, characters, world-building etc.) there’s not much I can say about Children of God that I haven’t already said about its predecessor. Russell continues to be a truly excellent author, with a wonderfully evocative writing style and a beautifully crafted… well… everything. Emilio Sandoz continues to grip like no one else. The other characters continue to be excellent, yet in the shadow of Sandoz. I suppose one criticism I do have is that Children of God is a little light on the ladies. The Sparrow had a lot of time devoted to some wonderful female characters (because Sofia and Ann between them were a wonderful pair of completely different but marvellously real women portrayed beautifully), but Children of God skimps a bit. There are two/three/four major female characters in the book (depending on how you define “major”) but they just don’t make the impact anyone did in the Sparrow. I can see why a book about Space Jesuits would be a little low on women, but I wish the standard of the first book could have at least been carried through into the second, if not increased. The women of Children of God are in many ways dramatically moving, but not to the same extent, and not as viscerally as the Sparrow’s women. They do not punch you right in the feels, to slip into internet.

What I think Children of God does improve on, however, is its view of humanity’s future. It was written in 1998, and looks to a future still a bit ahead of ours, but with very gripping realism. It’s not all flying cars and internet-brain-implants (not that I’m against those), but rather politics and progression and population and all the pessimistic issues that are less exciting to write about than technology. She speaks of epidemics and overcrowding and global warming, but also about greater racial equality and religious inclusion. She makes the picture of a future world I can really see coming to be, both good and bad, where a black pope helps the Catholic church into a position on birth control that really tackles global health issues, and where people still die of diseases in terrible numbers. She isn’t really an optimist or a pessimist (which seems to be the choice most SF authors make when they draw the future – no half measures for them), but she understands that progress brings some of both, and makes the world reflect the change she truly thinks could happen. Some of the issues she draws on for the world of the 2060s are issues that are relevant now, peppered with technology and politics that are familiar but pushed forward a few steps, so that, almost more than any book I’ve ever read, hers is the future I can really imagine coming to pass. The Windup Girl managed it, to an extent, but because it pushed further into the future and went more extreme, it could not be as close to the bone as Russell makes her work.

I suppose this too is part of the emotional impact. It would be harder, I think, to really really care about the events of a strange and distant space future, no matter how well written, than the events of an eerily forboding and real near-future. Sandoz is, really, the product of a world I can really imagine coming to be, and so he feels so much realer and so much easier to care about. Although his problems are alien to me (both in the literal sense, but also figuratively, when it comes to his religious dilemmas) their roots in the familiar make them simple to hold close.

Essentially, now I have read both, I believe very strongly that the Sparrow and Children of God work as a pair. To read one without the other deprives you of the full emotional development of the story, and of the full meaning of the series as a whole. If you look at Children of God alone, it may seem like a pale imitation of the Sparrow, but it was never meant to be seen alone, and it is the complement that drives it to mean so much, not any sort of continuation.


About readerofelse

A student of a redundant, useless and thoroughly interesting subject and reader of many books, particularly fantasy, science fiction and plenty else besides.
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