Russell, Mary Doria. 1998. Children of God. New York: Villard.

Reviewed 11 November 1998

Children of God (cover) This is Ms. Russell's "sophomore slump." Yeah, right. It's not quite as good a book as The Sparrow (5 stars), but that's rather like calling an Olympic silver medalist a loser.

Children of God picks up at the end of The Sparrow, and continues with many of the same characters. There's something vaguely disquieting about this continuation of Fr. Sandoz's story. Russell has worked in a shift in the focus of the story that doesn't really hit one until about a third of the way through Children of God. The Sparrow is Emilio's story throughout; Children of God is not. This is not due to the POV shifts, because The Sparrow used the same technique. The difference is that Emilio reacts in Children of God, and acts in The Sparrow. His reactions are the driving force that moves the plot forward, but nonetheless they are not the focus.

This is probably as it should be. The mythic structure of these novels concerns "first contact." Emilio's story is no longer one of first contact, because he's going back to Rakhat—however unwillingly. (This is one of the subtle flaws in this novel. While Emilio must go back to complete his story, a kidnapping just doesn't feel right.) Thus, the story focuses on those still embroiled in first contact back on Rakhat—the Runa, the Jana'ata, and Sofia (who has survived).

That focus plays out the terrible tragedy of The Sparrow to one of many of the possible conclusions. Rather than the smallpox blankets and Spanish Inquisition that conquered the Americas and destroyed fifteen cultures, we see exploitation of technological dependency and an almost stereotypically Middle Eastern thirst for vengeance conquer Rakhat and destroy only two cultures. One irony—and it's a very subtle one, that no review I've seen has commented upon—is that one of the cultures destroyed in Children of God is that of the victors. Another culture arises from that destruction, but there is nonetheless a tinge of sadness behind this multilevel irony.

One of the greatest strengths of The Sparrow is its refusal to impose answers on the very difficult questions that it raises. Instead, the reader must constantly evaluate the materials, and his/her interim answers will be found wanting in almost every instance as the novel unfolds. At the same time, though, The Sparrow never lapses into solipsism or artsy-fartsy cleverness a la Ann Beattie, John Cheever, and the rest of the New Yorker crowd.

Children of God subverts the structure and expectations established by The Sparrow by actually providing some answers to questions of first cause. Emilio's suffering, and the naming of its proximate cause, is important to both novels. However, Children of God shifts its focus from proximate cause as influenced by first cause to first cause as revealed in proximate cause. Once again, this shift is most obvious immediately following Emilio's kidnapping.

So, in a sense, an almost off-stage kidnapping is central to Children of God. It provides the (almost literal) deus ex machina to return Emilio Sandoz to Rakhat, where he can find healing—at a very high price. It also signals the destruction of whatever uncomfortable expectations of structure we had built up through a book and a half, particularly considering the identity of those who are involved in the kidnapping. From here on, though, there is little of the subversion of expectations that made The Sparrow such an engaging and delightful challenge to the reader. There remains enough to raise Children of God far above the average novel, whether speculative fiction or "mainstream."

Overall rating: 4 stars
Excellent.
Children of God is not quite as satisfying a kick in the preconceived notions as The Sparrow. Closure need not require answers. Ms. Russell's second book tips ever so slightly too far into giving answers to some very difficult questions. Along the way, she raises more questions, but the balance is still off. This, however, is praise with faint damning. That Ms. Russell even tried to present more questions, instead of just neatly tying off all the loose ends left by The Sparrow, is a credit to her writing and her intellectual honesty.


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