Book Talk: Wrapping Up the *Children of God* Read-along

Children of God by Mary Doria Russell

Children of God
Mary Doria Russell
Ballantine Books (1999), Paperback (ISBN 044900483X / 9780449004838)
Fiction (speculative/SF), 464 pages
Source: personal copy
Reason for Reading: Re-read as co-host of a Read-Along with Heather J., following the March 2010 Read-Along of The Sparrow

Opening Lines: “Sweating and nauseated, Emilio Sandoz sat on the edge of his bed with his head in what was left of his hands.

“Many things had turned out to be more difficult than he’d expected. Losing his mind, for example. Or dying.”

Book Description: The only member of the original mission to the planet Rakhat to return to Earth, Father Emilio Sandoz has barely begun to recover from his ordeal when the Society of Jesus calls upon him for help in preparing for another mission to Alpha Centauri. Despite his objections and fear, he cannot escape his past or the future.

Old friends, new discoveries and difficult questions await Emilio as he struggles for inner peace and understanding in a moral universe whose boundaries now extend beyond the solar system and whose future lies with children born in a faraway place.

Strikingly original, richly plotted, replete with memorable characters and filled with humanity and humor, Children of God is an unforgettable and uplifting novel that is a potent successor to The Sparrow and a startlingly imaginative adventure for newcomers to Mary Doria Russell’s special literary magic.

Comments: When I re-read The Sparrow earlier this year, I knew that Children of God would get a re-read not long after. My recollections of CoG were much less vivid than those of The Sparrow, for one thing, and I wanted to refresh them; for another, although CoG is a follow-up to The Sparrow, I consider the two books as a single story, and forgoing the second part of that story wasn’t an option for me.

Children of God opens shortly after Emilio Sandoz has responded in full to the Jesuit inquiry about the original mission to Rakhat, and one outcome of that response is that the Jesuits want a second mission to Rakhat; that’s the last thing that Sandoz wants to have anything to do with. His experience on Rakhat profoundly changed Emilio…but we’ll learn that he and the other members of the Stella Maris crew profoundly changed Rakhat, too.

Rakhat and its people – the ruling minority Jana’ata and their partners and prey, the Runa – receive most of the author’s attention in Children of God; while Mary Doria Russell introduced their world in The Sparrow, she builds it here. The themes of this novel are more political than philosophical and theological, and the questions it raises are different, although not of lesser importance. And while many of the new characters in this story are from other species, they are drawn and developed in recognizably human ways.

Another reason I wanted to re-read CoG is that I hadn’t liked it as much as The Sparrow when I first read it, and I wanted to see if that still held. Granted, there are very few books I love as much as The Sparrow, which received a rare 5/5 rating from me. And while I liked and appreciated CoG more on this reading, I still like The Sparrow better. This is strictly opinion – I don’t think I’d say one novel IS better than the other, but depending on your literary preferences in general, you might not like them equally. While both tell a fascinating story, I don’t get the sense of intensity from Children of God that I do from The Sparrow. Also, CoG, with its heavier story focus on the denizens of another planet, feels more rooted in traditional science fiction to me, and I’m not a huge fan of reading SF. I prefer SF as a movie and TV genre, which allows me to see the world being created; I remain frustrated that I can’t visualize the peoples of Rakhat. And while it’s not a major issue – for some, I’m sure it wouldn’t be a problem at all – it gets in my way, I’m afraid. I wish it didn’t.

Heather posted some great discussion questions for Children of God, and I wanted to address a few of them (spoiler-free):

Over and over in this book (and in THE SPARROW) characters reiterate that they did not mean to do harm, or they did things with the best intentions.  Do their good intentions make them less responsible for the outcome of their actions?  Do intentions mean anything in the long run?

The Sparrow is a first-contact narrative; Children of God is what happens after. I think more of the intentions were formed in the first book, and the actions that they fueled carried through the second. I think good intentions can explain, but if the outcome of the actions they spur is harmful, they don’t excuse. We still have to deal with the actions and their consequences.

Halfway through the book the author begins to reveal this hist ory of the war through conversation that take place in the future between the Jesuits and Suukmel and Sofia. The author stated in an interview that she wasn’t particularly pleased with the way this section turned out but that it was the “least bad” way to write it.  Did this narrative tool work for you? 

I think Russell’s right; there probably wasn’t a truly good way to work this necessary exposition into the flow of the story, but I do give her credit for not bringing the narrative to a dead stop when she does it. I’ve seen too many less-skilled authors fumble this kind of thing, and she did manage it effectively under the circumstances (and manage to provide a bit of foreshadowing in the bargain).

Russell never tells us what happened to the UN party that showed up at the end of The Sparrow and sent Emilio back to Earth. What do you think happened to them? Why does Russell leave the fate of the rescue party a mystery?

Sandoz was returned to Earth unaccompanied. My theory is that the UN group didn’t come back from Rakhat, but wasn’t engaged with the planet long enough to affect its people or send back any new knowledge. The Jana’ata may have proved too much for them. In any case, I assume Russell doesn’t revisit them because they have nothing to add to the story she means to tell.

I’m very glad I re-read Children of God and thank Heather for inviting me to host this Read-Along with her! I got more out of it this time around, and I have a greater appreciation for Mary Doria Russell’s talent and accomplishment in creating this story. I still don’t feel that it stands on its own as well as The Sparrow, but I have more recognition of how my literary biases influence that feeling. I will continue to recommend reading it along with The Sparrow, but if I could only read one of the two, I’d still choose The Sparrow.

Rating: 4/5

Did you participate in the Children of God Read-Along? Leave a link to your review in the comments, please! Other reviews:

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