Children of God

Mary Doria Russell, 1997

Those who have read Mary Doria Russell's impressive debut novel, The Swallow, will already be familiar with the setting and subject of Russell's sequel, Children of God and will be pleased to know that the qualities that set the first novel apart as one of the best first novels in years are also present in this novel. Although Children of God can be read enjoyably enough as a stand-alone work, the reader would miss a great deal of the resonance from the first novel, and it is highly recommended that the first novel is read first.

Children of God follows on immediately where The Sparrow finished. Emilio, relieved of the crushing burden of sole knowledge of the events on Rakhat begins to slowly and painfully rebuild his life, resigning as a Jesuit and finding love with the understanding and compassionate Gina. But already, the Society of Jesus is planning a new mission to Rakhat in conjunction with Carlo, an amoral mafiosi and Gina's ex-husband, who is expecting vast profits. They want Emilio along, whatever the personal cost to him, and using whatever means are necessary.

Meanwhile, on Rakhat, society is in flux. The Runa, fired by the pregnant Sophia - who survived the massacre, though horribly injured - and no longer content with their lot are in open revolt, their masters fleeing to their capitol in the North. Although the original mission intended no harm, it has caused staggering change.

Like The Sparrow, Russell has once again used a split style narrative, alternating the action on Rakhat with events on Earth and the second Jesuit mission. However, whereas the original novel had two strong and distinct threads, each with its particular temper, Russell here tries to interweave two locations and different times with varying success. For the most part it is effective, but some of the chapters that jump forward are a little confusing and only make sense as the novel nears its end, long after they were read. In the original novel, the strand set upon Earth was extremely powerful and the second strand provided an effective counterpoint until the two begin to merge as the story is completed. Here, both strands have a similar feel, are more linear, and thus their impact is lessened. It is still, however, a fine way of interweaving the parts of the novel.

Characterisation is one of Russell's strong points. There are a number of characters who are fully realised characters rather than charicatures and throughout characterisation is thoughtful, mature and believable. Emilio Sandoz is the core of the novel, even though he only appears in roughly half the novel. He is a highly emotive and sympathetic character and is developed further as the events on Rakhat the second time around bring him, and the reader, to a realisation about the people and events that had shaped him. We realise that however clear something may appear, that there are no absolutes, no black or white. It is painful for Sandoz, and only slightly less painful for the reader, though extremely impressive.

The other characters are no less well drawn, including those of the two alien species. The latter are if anything better drawn than in the first novel, as here they are examined in greater detail and their morality and complexities exposed. All characters, whatever species, are gone into in depth, and each have a colour and depth which is unusual in an sf novel, especially only the second novel.

Children of God is the tricky second novel, and can, at first impression, feel slightly disappointing in comparison with the accomplishment of The Sparrow. However, it is a fine novel, with superb characterisation and a depth and vision beyond many other pieces of fiction. It is challenging and by no means an easy read, but is worth it, and provides an emotive, intelligent break from the typical sf fare.

(c) 1998 Helen Steele


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