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Publisher's Summary

Emilio Sandoz is a remarkable man, a living saint and Jesuit priest who undergoes an experience so harrowing and profound that it makes him question the existence of God. This experience - the first contact between human beings and intelligent extraterrestrial life - begins with a small mistake and ends in a horrible catastrophe.

Sandoz is a part of the crew sent to explore a new planet. What they find is a civilization so alien and incomprehensible that they feel compelled to wonder what it means to be human.

The priest is the only surviving member of the crew, and upon his return, he is confronted by public inquisition and accusations of the most heinous crimes imaginable. His faith utterly destroyed, crippled and defenseless, his only hope is to tell his tale. Father John Candotti has been charged with discovering the truth, but the truth may be more than Earth is willing to accept.

©2008 Mary Doria Russell (P)2008 Brilliance Audio

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  • Jim N
  • Chicago, IL
  • 08-15-12

Superbly Written and Thought-provoking

I've read and/or listened to this novel 3 times and I like it more each time. It's a thoughtful, engrossing first contact story with theological, moral and science fiction themes. The Sparrow tells the tale of a Jesuit mission to an alien world and, more specifically, the story of Father Emilio Sandoz, the lone survivor of that mission. His experience is life-changing, to say the least.

Russell writes interesting, highly plausible characters and she not only explores the theological implications of the book's events, she also creates a memorable alien culture.

David Colacci's reading is quite good. He starts a little uncertainly but quickly gains his footing, giving voice to the various characters without ever taking accents and dialects to distracting extremes.

I can't recommend The Sparrow highly enough but be warned: if you're the type of science fiction fan who wants action-packed space opera, this isn't the book for you. It's a book about people and ideas, not an action/ adventure story.

33 of 34 people found this review helpful

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  • Ryan
  • Somerville, MA, United States
  • 09-30-12

A complex exploration of hope challenged

On the face of it, the Sparrow is a novel about humanity's first contact with an alien race, a disastrous expedition to Alpha Centauri that leaves only one survivor, a Jesuit priest named Father Emilio Sandoz. Underneath, though, Mary Doria Russell creates a nuanced, multi-layered novel that poses some serious questions about the nature of faith and morality.

The story builds suspense by cutting back and forth between the Church’s interviews of the spiritually and physically broken priest, who initially refuses to talk, and the events of the past, proceeding from the time when the aliens are first discovered (and the Church recognizes an opportunity for itself). We know that things are destined to go wrong, but not exactly how, except for a few pieces of foreshadowing. Does the tragedy of the mission hinge on one mistake -- or many?

Russell takes her time setting up the story, which might try the patience of some readers, but illuminates the minds of a small, tight-knit group of well-constructed characters. We see the initial sense of scientific and spiritual mission, the optimism of the interstellar travelers as they near their destination, the months of exploration of the edenic planet Rakhat and the first encounters with the childlike Runa. However, as the story unfolds, we begin to see the outlines of a significant difference between the humans and the aliens that neither side manages to perceive fully, each with its own innate view of how life is meant to function. I found the conception of an alien species’ alternate biology and culture reminiscent of Ursula Le Guin’s works.

Religious themes often feature in First Contact novels, because, of course, the very presence of other intelligent beings would raise important questions about the “design” of the universe. Could we get a new glimpse of the Ultimate Creative Force by meeting fellow travelers? Or is there a hubris in hoping? What commonalities should be embraced? What differences accepted? In The Sparrow, these issues are central, though you don’t need to be Catholic or even religious at all to relate to them. The priests here may belong to an old tradition, but theirs is one that embraces science and rationality, seeking God somewhere in the DNA of the universe rather than in supernatural encounters. Indeed, conversations between Father Sandoz and a strong-willed agnostic character named Ann show that the boundaries between belief and lack of it aren’t easy to define.

At the heart of the book, though, is the question of shattered faith. What happens when what we hope for fails us, and the universe cruelly turns on us, as it does for Father Sandoz? Do we let go of the piece of wreckage we’re clinging to and allow ourselves to silently sink below the cold waves? Or do we reach for the helping hand that others offer us, even though it forces us to face the pain and weakness we carry? Russell, admirably, doesn’t offer an easy out for either Father Sandoz or her readers.

A few things hold me back from a five star review, however. First of all, there are a lot of plausibility issues, the main one being that a visit to another inhabited planet would never unfold with so little planning or caution (I mean, think about the bacteria). Secondly, though I liked the characters, their quirks and banter get a little too precious at times.

Overall, though, I think The Sparrow is well worth a read for anyone who appreciates science fiction that isn’t about blazing guns or astrobabble, but tells a contemplative story focused on age-old human questions.

37 of 39 people found this review helpful

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Brilliant First Contact Story

"Like many tales of disaster, this one is a series of reasonable decisions."

When Star Trek does first contact, it always seems to go reasonably well. Despite language barriers, cultural barriers, and physical barriers, communication and understanding are generally achieved.

In this story, all the ingredients for successful first contact seem to be in place: we understand the language, we have cultural elements in common, and both cultures desperately want to communicate. So, what went so horribly wrong?

This is a story told out of time. Be patient. You must walk a mile in these people's shoes in order to truly understand. Oh, and you MUST get the sequel (Children of God) to get to the whole story. It will be well worth the time.

When people who don't generally read science fiction ask me for a "literary" science fiction book, this is where I send them. The writing is intense. The characters are beautifully drawn and deep. The issues examined will haunt you. I wish it wasn't in the Sci-Fi genre because then more people would know this amazing work.

I am SO happy to see this available on Audible. For the usual reasons releated to copywrite, this brilliant tale has been on and off the Audible menu. This is an older work, so the audio quality is not up to more modern standards. But the performance is amazing. And it's here now, so I strongly suggest you get this and "Children of God" right away before they vanish again.

30 of 32 people found this review helpful

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just amazing

I've listened to a lot of audiobooks, but this transcends classifications. Not just a sci-fi story, but a deeply moving look into a man's soul. The characters are multilayered individuals and the problems they incur meeting an alien race are very realistic and much more believeable than in any sci fi novels I've ever read. It makes sense that the auther is a sociologist.And the narrator is absolutely perfect in every way, move over Scott Brick, there's a new King of audiobooks!

15 of 16 people found this review helpful

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  • Robert
  • Yamhill, OR, United States
  • 12-13-11

Well-deserved award-winner

Stephen, in a review, writes, "6.0 stars. This book was beautifully written and the best way I can think to describe it is emotionally devastating (but in a good way). Nominally, it is a book about "first contact" with an alien race but the heart of the story is the age old question, "How can someone believe in a just, loving God when such horrible things happen to good people?"

Great summary, Stephen, thank you. Emotionally devastating? To be sure. But in a good way? Not on your life. I'll tell you, brother, this book took its toll on me.

Beginning to read this book and knowing from the publisher summary that only Emilio Sandoz was going to return from the mission created a real tension for me that only tightened as the book went on. It was impossible not to get attached all of the members of the crew. A crew that one cannot help but like even more as the story unfolds. Surprisingly, there is not an asshole among them. Each in their own way, I grew fond of of them all. The author fully develops and brings nearly every character to life brilliantly.

There is not a lot of excitement from the beginning and thru most of the book. But somehow, the suspense builds. Again, much of this time is spent in wonderfully developing the characters. Characters all of whom will come to some horrible end. And horror is the only way to describe it. Horror especially for Emilio:

"Emilio, what happened to you out there? What changed everything?"
"Don't ask me, Vince," Sandoz said bitterly, "Ask God."

And that is the quintessential one of many such questions about God.

“God would not have brought us this far to let us down now.”

Oh Father Sandoz, you poor SOB. You have no idea. And we the reader have no idea either. We do not know exactly what that ordeal was till nearly the last chapter of the story. Did I mention there was a certain tension that builds throughout? All the way to the bitter and I mean bitter end. Emilio says earlier in the book that his entire life would be viewed as before and after that event.

While God is central to the theme of the book, that should not dissuade anyone from reading this masterpiece if a god or notion about one is not central to your thinking or beliefs. This is a book much more about spirituality and a lot less about christianity or dogma. The book is about morality but not the in-your-face kind. At first, because of an Inquisition-like atmosphere that Emilio finds himself in back on Earth, we think the book might be about Fr/Dr Sandoz's morality. But Sandoz challenges us all to judge neither him nor even his tormentors: “There are no beggars on Rakhat. There is no unemployment. There is no overcrowding. No starvation. No environmental degradation. There is no genetic disease. The elderly do not suffer decline. Those with terminal illness do not linger. They pay a terrible price for this system, but we too pay...and the coin we use is the suffering of children. How many kids starved to death this afternoon, while we sat here? Just because their corpses aren’t eaten doesn’t make our species any more moral!”

It took me 15 years to pick this book up but only one day to read it. The thought of a book about a clutch of Jesuit priests on a mission to Alpha Centauri did not exactly grab me. But, once it did, I could not put it down. It was wonderful from beginning to end. Most would probably agree the book is not for youngsters. But for me, this was some of the best, non-linear storytelling, ever penned. Was the book believable? Not really. But then neither are fairy-tales and that does not in the least diminish my enjoyment of them.

40 of 45 people found this review helpful

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Far fetched book but good summer listen.

Let me start by saying I loved this book. I could not stop listening to it. My husband on the other hand hated this story (not a sci-fi fan)
You will enjoy this book if you like sci-fi and the posibilities of encountering other life forms. This story will make you think about God, if we are alone in the univserse and how we would react if we encounterd others forms of life.
A fun summer read that will make you think about the world and universe around you.

24 of 27 people found this review helpful

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  • DarthVal
  • Hickory, NC, United States
  • 10-12-15

Starts out slow, but then sneaks up on you

Be warned, this one starts out slow but will sneak up on you.

I really struggled through the beginning, varying between slight interest and floating away. In fact, I very nearly abandoned the book. Then, suddenly, I discovered that I was hooked.

I think my struggle was due in large parts to science fiction nature of the book, heavy on the science. In the end, however, the heavy science was part of what I enjoyed most about the book. The themes ran deep in this book, exploring relationships, philosophy, anthropology, linguistics....well, the list goes on and on.

The story unfolded in a series of flashbacks to the past interspersed with the present day struggle of the protagonist to deal with the past. Father Emilio Sandoz, a Jesuit priest, was the sole survivor of a missionary expedition to visit the first discovered interplanetary sentient life forms. He was found broken in body and soul only to face the ordeal of facing his Jesuit brotherhood's expectations for explanations that he'd rather avoid.

Ms. Russell pulled me through a myriad of emotions as I journeyed along with Sandoz throughout the story. The story was full of depth and complexity. The characters were very richly drawn with unique perspectives that often question today's socio-cultural status quo. However, this was accomplished with a subtle touch, rather than a sledge hammer. No, the hammer was saved for a much more poignant moment in the book, but you will have to discover that for yourself, potential reader.

If you find yourself struggling at the beginning, again, I reiterate, hang in there. The payoff is most definitely worth it.

5 of 5 people found this review helpful

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  • Mark
  • Reno, NV, United States
  • 08-31-13

Instantly one of my all-time favorites

Any additional comments?

Can't express fully how much I loved this book. It sounds like one that I'd maybe avoid: A sci-fi novel about a group of Jesuit priests and their secular colleagues who travel to a distant planet from which radio songs have been detected in order to spread the gospel and/or visit God's other children. But it starts from the end, when the sole survivor returns to Earth near death and is implicated in debauchery and the murder of a child. The revelation at the end of what's really happening on the planet is profound and deserves long contemplation. Plus the writing itself is stunning, both beautiful and smart.

The narration was perfect.

Bechdel test: Unsure.

5 of 5 people found this review helpful

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What an amazing read! This was one of THE best books I have ever read! The story is very unique and interesting and the message is really great. I have downloaded the sequel and am looking forward to reading it soon.

5 of 5 people found this review helpful

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  • alison
  • Samford Valley, Australia
  • 05-13-13

Mind Blowing

What made the experience of listening to The Sparrow the most enjoyable?

The characters were wonderful. Mary Doria Russell created multi-dimensional people and made me not only care for them, but also wish they were in my life.

What other book might you compare The Sparrow to and why?

This is my first tentative foray into speculative fiction so I don't have much to compare it to. I NEVER imagined I would enjoy science fiction so much. The characters' depth was similar to those in The Prince of Tides--these are people I who will stay with me.

Which scene was your favorite?

There were so many poignant scenes. The best was probably the moment of contact, when Father Emilio was overwhelmed with the sense that his whole life had led to that moment , and he finally experienced God.

Did you have an extreme reaction to this book? Did it make you laugh or cry?

I laughed, I cried, I gasped. I will need at least a week to recover from the horrific events that unfold in the final chapters. And I am already pining for my "friends."

Any additional comments?

If you steer away from science fiction because it's "not your thing," I encourage you to try this one. The writing is beautiful and smart--there's plenty to stimulate almost any reader. Physics, chemistry, astronomy, anatomy, medicine, linguistics, anthropology, Latin, psychology, faith...all wrapped up in some very clever storytelling. Honestly--don't skip over this one just because it looks like it's about aliens and other worlds.

4 of 4 people found this review helpful