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Children of God by Mary Doria Russell

How much can you hate on a book for not being the book you want it to be?

An open bible rests upon a wooden table with a campfire out of focus in the background.
Photo by Timothy Eberly on Unsplash

New York: Fawcett Books, 1999.

Mary Doria Russell wrote this awesome book called The Sparrow. It’s a tale of Jesuits, space-travel, and first contact with an alien world. I recommend it. If you read and enjoy The Sparrow, chances are you’ll also enjoy its sequel, Children of God.

Spoilers below!

How much can you hate on a book for not being the book you want it to be? It seems to me that the answer has got to be: not much at all. So I guess my largest complaint about Children of God isn’t really all that valid, making Children of God a superb achievement (like The Sparrow). Nevertheless, there are a couple things that make me a little more reserved in my excitement for Children of God.

Children of God feels a little like eight books in one: there’s a relationship drama, an epic military fantasy, two coming-of-age stories, a political and anthropological study, a mafia story, a science fiction adventure, and a thesis on the problem of evil. It is to Mary Doria Russell’s eternal credit that these stories all flow together and are each individually captivating. (The one glaring exception: Sandoz’s abduction onto the Giordano Bruno. It just didn’t feel real within the world she build. Interestingly, in the acknowledgements, Russell writes, “One of the great and enduring benefits of having written The Sparrow has been the friendship offered me by many members of the Society of Jesus; I hope they will forgive me for the kidnapping in this book. Vince Giuliani and I knew it was a lousy thing to do, but we just couldn’t think of any other way to get Emilio to go back to Rakhat!”)

Children of God has a ton of different plot lines; chapters routinely jump forward or backward any number of years, and the reader continually meets new characters. And amazingly, this all largely works. I was invested in all the different plot lines. I really enjoyed meeting new characters and seeing the world from their points of view. Despite jumping between the future and the past, the story wasn’t spoiled; instead, this helped me to focus on the story’s larger themes. Moreover, it is so easy to botch all this up: jumping around in time, managing a large cast of characters, and raising complex themes — these are all very easy to do poorly. And yet Russell succeeds with grace.

So here’s my largest complaint: I wanted an unabridged version of each of those eight different stories within Children of God. Give me a novella which examines Sandoz’s and Gina’s relationship. Give me an epic military science-fantasy saga describing Hlavin Kitheri’s reign as Paramount and the Runa campaign against the Jana’ata. Give me a YA coming-of-age story focused squarely on Ha’anala and Isaac in the midst of all this. Give me a spiritual and scientific retrospective written by the Jesuits. In Children of God, each of these stories is abridged. We only get a taste of each one. We meet a new character, fall in love with them (or grow to hate them!), see them do something fantastic, and then move right on. These were good stories, and I didn’t want to see them so abridged.

And yet one story wasn’t abridged: Emilio Sandoz’s. Children of God is his story, start to finish. I wanted Children of God to give me the unabridged telling of those eight different stories. It doesn’t. Instead, it uses those eight sub-stories as backdrop to a much smaller story: Emilio Sandoz making sense of what happened to him during his first mission to Rakhat. This is the one plot-line we never lose focus on, the one plot-line that gets fully fleshed-out. How much can you hate on a book for not being the book you want it to be? It seems to me that the answer has got to be: not much at all. I wish Children of God was really eight different unabridged stories. But it’s not. It’s one story, with a lot of fantastic things happening in it. When I look at it in this light, Children of God is beautifully complete. When I don’t look at it in this way, it feels like it is trying to do too many things at once.

I loved the character of Emilio Sandoz, but I also loved all the other characters and wish I had had more time with each of them.

Two things are for sure though. 1) Mary Doria Russell can write some beautiful prose:

“Go back down the mountain, my heart,” Suukmel advised serenely. “Listen to Isaac’s music again. Remember what you thought when you first heard it. Know that if we are children of one God, we can make ourselves one family in time.”

“And if God is just a song?” Ha’anala asked, alone and frightened.

Suukmel did not answer for a while. Finally she said, “Our task is the same.”

2) I am sad that my time with all these characters is over. Children of God is anchored in interesting characters relating to each other in deeply human ways. I think I’ll now have to go read Russell’s other novels to enjoy her other characters.