I had a little trouble deciding what to read for my last book in this challenge. Most importantly, I wanted it to be good. Who wants to read 99 books and then push through something boring and sucky at the very end? I have a number of good books still waiting to be read, including some by Cormac McCarthy, Edith Wharton, Charles Dickens, and John Irving. But I have already read something by all of those authors. So in the spirit of Cannonball Read and expanding my literary choices, I read The Sparrow (1996) by Mary Doria Russell, which included both an author I had never read as well as a genre I rarely read. I was not disappointed. The story, the characters, the adventure, the mystery of what had occurred, and the questions of religion and morality drew me in and kept me deeply involved throughout the book.
We know almost nothing about Father Emilio Sandoz's past when we first meet him, a mysterious figure coming home as the sole survivor, injured, shattered, and in disgrace from a missionary expedition to a far-off planet. The narrative jumps back and forth between Sandoz's struggles to come to terms with the aftermath of what occurred and how the missionary expedition came to be many years earlier. Anne and George Edwards are an older, childless married couple, infinitely capable, constantly moving forward, and always fun to be around. Sophia Mendes is a brilliant creator of Artificial Intelligence programs, Jimmy Quinn is the youngest of the group, a giant of a man who is sweet and loyal and makes the crucial discovery that begins their quest. The group is rounded out by three more Jesuit Priests, D.W. Yarbrough, an ex-military priest with a strong Texas attitude and accent as well as the naturalist Marc Robichaux and musicologist Alan Pace.
The appeal of this book for me stemmed from a number of reasons, most importantly the characters. They were smart, felt relatively real, and they were fun to be around. A simple dinner party in The Sparrow would quickly turn into funny, sometimes emotional discussions about life, religion, and morality. Another appeal was the constant mystery. First, you want to find out what happened to Sandoz's hands, then what his mysterious past contained, then how the expedition came to be, then what the new planet was like, then what could have gone so horribly wrong. I quickly came to care about the characters so much, that I'd get nervous at any little thing that went wrong, dreading their inevitable ends, and cringing at what I was imagining. Mary Doria Russell also brings up a number of interesting dilemmas about God, religion, and love, so besides the captivating characters and mystery, she asks some pretty stark, open-ended questions that keep you thinking. In addition, the sentient creatures the party encounters on the planet and their relationships, both to the humans, as well as each other bring up some interesting themes of dominance and morality.
With so many things to think about and the incredibly likable characters, I very much enjoyed reading this book and I'm looking forward to reading the sequel, Children of God, although I am already concerned that it can't be as good. However, The Sparrow wasn't perfect. I found a couple major plot twists a little hard to believe. Spoilers! First, I couldn't understand how Father Sandoz could come back in such disgrace. Although the media can glom onto a scapegoat with great tenacity, I only halfway believed that Father Sandoz had done something horrible when I knew almost nothing about the story. The people who saved him found him caged, naked, bloody, and beyond comprehension, but they assumed he'd turned from a chaste priest to some kind of sex fiend? Then why didn't he just find some hot, young, alien, boy-toy and set up house? From what I've heard, prostitution isn't all that fun. Also, I couldn't believe that Sophia Mendes would forget or not realize that she was using too much fuel so they wouldn't be able to get home. She's not one who would overlook such details.