Mary Doria Russell's The Sparrow is one of those books I've had orbiting around me for years, repeatedly recommended, often appearing in lists together with other books I've loved, or mentioned in comparison to other science fiction novels with some kind of religious theme. This one is often given the tagline Jesuits in space!, which is... kinda right, kinda completely-insufficient.
I finally read it. It's been a few weeks now, and it's still oddly difficult to gather my thoughts about it.
The story is told in alternating chapters, swapping between the before and the after. This works quite well for the story, although it's also partly responsible for the most uncomfortable part of reading this novel, which is basically that key events are packed into very few pages by the end. It feels unbalanced, because it deviates so much from the expected pace of a novel, but I can't really consider it a flaw - given the nature of the story, I can't imagine it done any other way. It makes sense.
A lot of readers will complain that the introductory/set-up part of the book is too long. For me, this didn't register as a problem, because I'm carried through the pages by the characters, who are vivid, bright, and easy to like. Emilio Sandoz, a linguistically gifted priest, is the gathering point through an odd series of events in which a radio signal from space is received, and the signal turns out to be music. It's a baffling kind of first contact. As it turns out, the Society of Jesus is more interested in it than anyone else is, and thus Sandoz and his friends - who happen to be scientists and engineers with all the relevant expertise - go into space in search of whoever produced the music.
They arrive at Rakhat, and - complications ensue. That's about as much as I feel safe-from-spoilers in saying about the plot.
What does it mean for the book, to heavily feature space Jesuits? I'd say not much really, because it's not preaching to the reader. There's a lot of discussion about religion and the nature of God between the characters, but this is the stuff that makes the book into tasty philosophical science fiction, and I like that kind of thing. Especially when it comes out of characters who are proper characters, and never simply cardboard figures onto which the speech bubbles may be taped. They discuss faith, and the other timeline, the after part, makes sure the question is always there: Can faith survive whatever is about to happen on this planet?
I recently read Michael Faber's The book of strange new things, which is one of those books where reviewers kept mentioning The Sparrow, for no good reason at all, really. I say this as someone who really liked Mary Doria Russell's novel and really disliked the other one, of course. They are astoundingly different books, despite the one-line summary "religious person on alien planet" - though the main difference, for me, is that Russell gives me characters and events I give a damn about, and Faber... didn't. (It's unfair to compare books this way, but, well.)
The more time I've had to think about The Sparrow, the more I like it. It has a sequel, Children of God, that I hope to get around to reading soonish. I've heard it does a good job of smoothing out the end of this book - which was abrupt, but not insufficient.
The voice and theme of the novel reminds me of Octavia Butler - and perhaps a bit of Margaret Atwood. Thus, fans of those will be the most obvious people to recommend this one to.
As far as science fiction goes, this one is heavier on social science and spends less time on the hard science bits. Stay away if you only accept science fiction in which tech is in constant focus. Obviously.