The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell




“The mission, he thought, probably failed because of a series of logical, reasonable, carefully considered decisions, each of which seemed like a good idea at the time. Like most colossal disasters.”

I’m still trying to sort out my feelings on this book. Don’t worry, they’re mostly good – it’s just so much to process and muse over. And I could sit here for half and hour and try to summarize it, but the inside jacket does a really good job –

It is the story of a charismatic Jesuit priest and linguist, Emilio Sandoz, who leads and twenty-first century scientific missions to a newly discovered extraterrestrial culture. Sandoz and his companions are prepared to endure isolation, hardship and death, but nothing can prepare them for the civilization they encounter, or for the tragic misunderstanding that brings the mission to a catastrophic end. Once considered a living saint, Sandoz returns alone to Earth physically and spiritually maimed, the mission’s sole survivor – only to be accused of heinous crimes and blamed for the mission’s failure. 

I first heard about this book on the BookRiot podcast several months ago and had it on my radar since then, so when I saw this copy at the used library bookstore for $2, I snatched it up. I’m glad I did. It’s not what I was expecting… I think I was expecting more science, or more of a dystopian factor, but instead it was a beautifully written examination of culture, spirituality, and human bonds.

The book alternates between before and during the mission to Rakhat, and after when Sandoz is the only one to return. I enjoyed seeing how the other planet was discovered, how the mission was put together, how the crew was chosen, and how they approached a completely alien culture once arriving. Also, a lot of bonus points to this book for showing how space travel can be possible when a group of determined people put their mind to it. All of that was interesting, even if it left more technical, scientific aspects out. But I think that even more than that, I enjoyed Emilio. Emilio is such a wonderful character. When we first meet him, he has returned from Rakhat and he is completely wrecked, physically and emotionally – but we don’t know why. Watching him evolve and go through different adjustments in his faith was fascinating, and just so beautifully done. (And this is coming from someone who expressly doesn’t like religion.) Finding out exactly what happened on this mission and to Emilio is what kept me turning the pages, wanting more.

The other characters are all likable as well – I don’t think there was anyone I didn’t like, and there were some that I grew quite attached to. But Emilio and his story are what give this book a life and uniqueness that I’ve never really seen anywhere else. Imagine my delight when I went online to read more about this author and found out that there’s a sequel, called Children of God. I have to hunt that down as soon as I can.


Sarah Says: 4 stars




  1. I wasn’t really sure how I felt when I was in the middle of it, or even when I first finished, but the more I look back on this book the more I really appreciate it. I don’t think there’s anything that even comes close to doing what it does in terms of all the different notes its able to hit in the span of a single book. Glad you ended up enjoying it!


    1. So right, it was kind of the same way for me. While I was reading it, I wasn’t sure how I felt – it was beautifully written, but seemed… slow? But I kept thinking about it after I finished and the more I thought about it, the more I liked that it was a slow, philosophical kind of read.


  2. It’s strange – this is a book I’ve come across numerous times at work and it usually ends up in the clearance section. I didn’t think anything of it until BookRiot sang its praises. I’m curious now and your review (AND your excitement for the sequel!) has me all the more interested.


  3. I love this kind of science fiction. I especially love it when sci-fi mixes itself up with religion — that’s always so interesting to me. Don’t forget to tell us what you think of Children of God! I have never read it but have heard it’s not as good as The Sparrow, and I didn’t want to mess up the memory of The Sparrow for myself.


    1. It’s weird in that I expected it to be more science fiction than it really was. The characters traveled in space and went to another planet, but it seemed like that was more like a small detail… the real focus of the story was on beliefs and human bonds and such.


  4. This one is on my reading list and I know i have to read it soon. As a book of science fiction it is so not my thing, but all the themes presented in the book are right up my alley. I’m kind of scared of reading it, what if i don’t like it? Highly improbably since everyone seems to love it.


    1. Well, you might not like it – that’s a risk you always take when others seem to really like something. But it’s not very sci-fi AT ALL. So don’t let that shy you away. It has sci-fi elements to it, but that’s not really the focus.


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