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The Sparrow: A Novel (Ballantine Reader's Circle) Paperback – September 8, 1997

876 customer reviews
Book 1 of 2 in the Sparrow Series

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Editorial Reviews Review

This strange, ambitious science fiction novel has already won enough attention for its first-time author to make it a selection by both the Book of the Month and QPB clubs. Father Emilio Sandoz, a Jesuit linguist, heads a team of scientists and explorers on an expedition to the planet Rakhat, where contact has been established with two apparently primitive races, the Runa and the Jana'ata. The narrative shifts back and forth between 2016, when contact is first made, and 2060, to a Vatican inquest interrogating the maimed and broken Sandoz. A paleoanthropologist, Russell makes the descriptions of the inhabitants of Rakhat both convincing and unsettling. Check out's Sparrow feature and read an excerpt from the book! --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

An enigma wrapped inside a mystery sets up expectations that prove difficult to fulfill in Russell's first novel, which is about first contact with an extraterrestrial civilization. The enigma is Father Emilio Sandoz, a Jesuit linguist whose messianic virtues hide his occasional doubt about his calling. The mystery is the climactic turn of events that has left him the sole survivor of a secret Jesuit expedition to the planet Rakhat and, upon his return, made him a disgrace to his faith. Suspense escalates as the narrative ping-pongs between the years 2016, when Sandoz begins assembling the team that first detects signs of intelligent extraterrestrial life, and 2060, when a Vatican inquest is convened to coax an explanation from the physically mutilated and emotionally devastated priest. A vibrant cast of characters who come to life through their intense scientific and philosophical debates help distract attention from the space-opera elements necessary to get them off the Earth. Russell brings her training as a paleoanthropologist to bear on descriptions of the Runa and Jana'ata, the two races on Rakhat whose differences are misunderstood by the Earthlings, but the aliens never come across as more than variations of primitive earthly cultures. The final revelation of the tragic human mistake that ends in Sandoz's degradation isn't the event for which readers have been set up. Much like the worlds it juxtaposes, this novel seems composed of two stories that fail to come together. BOMC, QPB and One Spirit Book Club selections.
Copyright 1996 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Series: Ballantine Reader's Circle
  • Paperback: 408 pages
  • Publisher: Ballantine Books; Reissue edition (September 8, 1997)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0449912558
  • ISBN-13: 978-0449912553
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.7 x 8.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 10.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (876 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #10,020 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Mary Doria Russell has been called one of the most versatile writers in contemporary American literature. Her novels are critically acclaimed, commercial successes. They are also studied in literature, theology and history courses in colleges and universities across the United States. Mary's guest lectures have proved popular from New Zealand to Germany as well as in the U.S. and Canada.

Her debut novel, THE SPARROW, is considered a classic of speculative fiction, combining elements of First Contact science fiction and a tense courtroom drama. Its sequel, CHILDREN OF GOD, is a sweeping three-generation family saga. Through the voices of unforgettable characters, these novels raise respectful but challenging fundamental questions about religion and faith. Together, the books have won eight regional, national and international awards. They have also been optioned for Hollywood movies starring Antonio Banderas and Brad Pitt, and they have inspired both a rock opera and a full-scale bel canto opera.

Next, Russell turned to 20th century history. A THREAD OF GRACE is the story of the Jewish underground near Genoa during the Nazi occupation of Italy. Nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, this thriller "moves swiftly, with impressive authority, jostling dialog, vibrant personalities and meticulous, unexpected historical detail. The intensity and intimacy of Russell's storytelling, her sharp character writing and fierce sense of humor bring fresh immediacy to this riveting WWII saga," according to Publisher's Weekly.

Her fourth novel, DREAMERS OF THE DAY, is both a romance and a disturbingly relevant political novel about the 1921 Cairo Peace Conference, when Winston Churchill, T.E. Lawrence and Gertrude Bell invented the modern Middle East. The Washington Post Book World called it "marvelous and rewarding... a stirring story of personal awakening set against the background of a crucial moment in modern history." Nominated for the 2008 IMPAC Dublin Literary Prize, Dreamers of the Day is also being adapted for the stage by Going to Tahiti Productions in New York City.

As a novelist, Mary is known for her exacting research -- no surprise, when you know that she holds a Ph.D. in Biological Anthropology from the University of Michigan. Before leaving Academe to write, Mary taught human gross anatomy at the Case Western Reserve University School of Dentistry. That background came in handy for her fifth novel, DOC, a murder mystery set in Dodge City in 1878, when the unlikely but enduring friendship between Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday began, four years before the famous shoot-out at the O.K. Corral.

"It's about vice, bigotry, violence, and living with a terminal disease," Russell says. "And Doc Holliday is going to break your heart." DOC was nominated for the Pulitzer in 2011, named a Notable Book by the Kansas State Library and won the Great Lakes Great Reads prize. The story has been optioned by Ron Howard and Akiva Goldsman for an HBO series.

Mary is currently at work on the story of the Tombstone gunfight (working title: THE CURE FOR ANGER). "DOC is The Odyssey," she says. "What happened in Tombstone forms the basis of an American Iliad." Expect it in late 2014 from HarperCollins Ecco imprint.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

320 of 343 people found the following review helpful By Nana Annie on July 28, 2000
Format: Paperback
Reading this book was a enriching, rewarding experience for me. As with most books, it isn't for everyone. I was looking for a little lighter read, since I've been reviewing books on death and dying and the Holocaust. Silly me - but I am so glad I made the mistake of thinking this would be an escape from the ultra serious!
This is definitely not a light read and in fact, it hits on many of the issues I've been exploring - the existence and function of God, the meaning of life, the use of suffering and healing, the delicacy and necessity of human relationships.
The story switches between the year 2019 - the US has lost its primary position as a world leader to Japan, marketers search the streets looking for ghetto kids with intellectual skills to groom and sell as indentured servants - and the year 2060, when a Jesuit priest is under examination for sins he is assumed to have committed while on a mission to a New World - Rakhat a planet far away from here.
We see Father Emilio Sandoz before the journey (2019) as he initiates this venture, traveling with characters so well written, I started to believe they were real. Dr. Anne and her husband, George; the recently freed indentured planner, Sofia; the young man who discovered the existence of the other world, Jimmy Quinn; D.W., their grumpy Jesuit leader. Two other characters are less developed, but make nice backdrop for this riveting story.
The book was a little difficult to get into at the start, not because of the writing, but because of the promise of horrors to come. How could this priest, so filled with life in 2019, be so horribly disfigured (did I really want to read the gruesome details?) And how could he have ended up a prostitute, and then murdered a child?
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123 of 131 people found the following review helpful By R. Griffiths on November 1, 2000
Format: Paperback
Who should read this novel?
1. Sci-fi fans - it has won lots of awards, featured on umpteen 'best of' lists and is just excellent science fiction. If I only had five sci-fi books, this would be one of them. Having said that, it's not 'hard sci-fi' - in other words it doesn't let the science get in the way of the story. Willing suspension of disbelief is the way to go.
2. anthropologists - Ok, so that's not many of us, but the point is that this book sensitively explores the concept of 'otherness'. There are two intelligent species on the planet. One is nice but dim, the other is bright but deadly. Who do the humans identify with? Intriguing question, huh? Well it was for me, anyway.
3. Religious people. And also people interested in the possibility of God, the possibility of forgiveness. This book faithfully addresses the seeming absence of God in the pain of the world (or should that be universe?). But it's never 'preachy', just keepin' it real.
4. Anyone who likes a good yarn. It's well written and the plot cracks along. The repeated cutting between the story of the mission and the aftermath of the mission keeps you guessing to the end. There's a kind of dawning realisation of the horror of what's being told, and I for one couldn't put it down.
5. Look, the first human contact with alien life is sponsored not by NASA but by... THE VATICAN! Its a mad idea - you just have to read this book to see how it works out.
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60 of 64 people found the following review helpful By Patrick Shepherd VINE VOICE on February 18, 2003
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Science fiction is a medium that is tailor-made for investigation of some of humanity's most perplexing questions, most especially questions of his (and the universe's) origin, God, what constitutes moral behavior, man's ultimate purpose. But very few science fiction novels really attempt to tackle these questions, getting caught up instead in the nifty gadgets that can be imagined, and forgetting their human element. Not so here.

Russell has crafted a fine work of character, of people both exceptional and very real, in this tale of first contact between a Jesuit sponsored mission and the denizens of the planet Rakhat. Emilio Sandoz is the only survivor of this mission, and most of the story is told from his viewpoint, both as a currently happening time-line and a later recollection under interrogation after he returns to Earth. It is easy to become engrossed in this man's life, as we see him as a great linguist, a priest with very understandable doubts but a solid need to help others, a man with normal desires for companionship, a person suffering under sever stress, a man mangled both physically and mentally. The other mission members are not slighted in the character development area, so that by the mid-point of the book, I felt that I was living with a very tight-knit family, whose individual foibles were all well-known and accepted, whose interpersonal banter was enjoyable and fitting.

It is this very depth of characterization that adds poignancy to the mission's fate and starkly highlights the main religious question. How can one believe in a God that allows such terrible things as the mission failure to happen? How can one not believe in a higher power that has orchestrated such an incredibly complex universe of objects, intelligences, and events?
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60 of 66 people found the following review helpful By Nicq MacDonald on June 16, 2002
Format: Paperback
I've read quite a bit of "Sci-fi". I love authors like Gibson, Stevenson, and Varley- science fiction novelists who hit you with material that combines great writing with action and characters who seem like they popped out of the latest hollywood action thriller. Sci-fi filled with weird devices, cool dialogue, and strange venues. The Sci-fi that computer geeks and teenage punks can't get enough of.
"The Sparrow" is not Sci-fi.
Russell is a writer of mature, philosophical science fiction in the grand tradition of authors such as Asimov, Clarke, and Huxley. Science fiction that truly makes you wonder about not only the physical (science), but the metaphysical as well. Questions of morality, spirituality, meaning, and destiny are all actively pursued by such authors- not as afterthoughts or decoration, but as the centerpiece of the fiction. Such works create a vital mythology for the postmodern and impending transhuman eras- they weave truths into their tales.
"The Sparrow" charts the journey of Emilio Sandoz, a Jesuit Priest and linguist, from the slums of San Juan to the planet of Rakhat, 4.3 Light Years from Earth, orbiting the star Alpha Centauri A. Along with an intriguing little group of well-meaning Jesuits, scientists, and engineers, this modern-day Cortez sets off to a new world in search, not of gold, but of spiritual treasure. Instead, he encounters disease, hardships, and two strange alien races barred from truly understanding humans by millions of years of evolutionary history. Ultimately, his search for god, about to finally be realized, is transformed into a carnal nightmare which destroys his illusions of divinity and nearly leaves him for dead.
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