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Children of God by Mary Doria Russell

Children of God (original 1998; edition 1999)

by Mary Doria Russell

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Title:Children of God
Authors:Mary Doria Russell
Info:Black Swan (1999), Edition: Tenth, Paperback, 509 pages
Collections:Read, Read but unowned

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Children of God by Mary Doria Russell (1998)

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Children of God - Mary Doria Russell
4 stars

“Philosophy, I discovered, is now more of an attitude than a career path - the job market has fallen off somewhat, since the Enlightenment. Fat Frans ”

This is the sequel to Russell’s shattering debut novel, The Sparrow. The first book tells the tragic story of a first contact space mission funded by The Society of Jesus. This book continues the story of the broken Father Emilio Sandoz . It begins on Earth with his recovery and follows his reluctant return to the planet Rakhat.

In some ways this is a time travel story. Russell doesn’t spend a lot of time on the technology of her near future, but she makes good use of the relative effects of acceleration on time. Each time Sandoz or any other character is in space, time on their respective planets gallops ahead of them. The story unfolds on two planets and in space, all in different time frames. And it works. It’s not confusing. She is truly an incredible writer.

The book is full of wonderful, engaging characters. They struggle, they suffer, and they have articulate, thought provoking conversations. Not one character, even the ones that I loved to hate, turns out to be completely evil. (And just for fun, Russell throws an autistic savant into the mix.) I lost count of the ongoing human and cultural conflicts that this story tackled, from the existence of God to planetary ecology. In conversation the characters struggle with forgiveness and redemption, loss, grief, and moral responsibility. The only complaint I have, and it’s a minor one, is that with so many serious issues to contemplate, I was distracted from the action of the plot. The ending of this book leaves me much more satisfied than I was with the tragic ending of the first one. I wish I hadn’t waited so long to get to this one.

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  msjudy | May 30, 2016 |
“The Sparrow” is a very hard act to follow, but Russell does a pretty good job of continuing the story of the spacefaring Jesuit priest Emilio Sandoz. She spends so much time tackling weighty issues that she didn’t really have to time to make the B-string Jesuit characters as twee as all of Sandoz’s mission companions in the first book (but they still got on my nerves).

Love, hate, forgiveness, war, slavery, genocide, faith, justice, identity… I could go on and on. All (and more) are explored in this lengthy read. Combined with the jumps back and forth and time, the plot holes and dropped sub-plots (as well as the cartoony Jesuits) made it impossible for me to overcome my annoyance and give it a higher rating… but it made me examine my thoughts and feelings on any number of subjects. I just didn’t identify with the characters as much as I did in the first book. Not an easy read.
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  memccauley6 | May 3, 2016 |
Essentially, Children of God and The Sparrow are one story separated into two volumes. While I count The Sparrow as one of my favorite books, in reality my appreciation encompasses both books and they must be read (and reread) together. On the surface, they are science fiction, but on a deeper level together they examine faith under fire and why God allows evil to occur in the universe. There won't be any spoilers about the plot in this review. Both my copies of The Sparrow and Children of God included an interview with the author and a readers guide.

Mary Doria Russell says: "The Sparrow was about the role of religion in the lives of many people, from atheist to mystic, and about the role of religion in history, from the Age of Discovery to the Space Age. I suppose that Children of God is about the aftermath of irreversible tragedy, about the many ways that we struggle to make sense of tragedy. It's about the stories we tell ourselves, and the ways we justify our decisions, to bring ourselves to some kind of peace. And I guess it's about the way time reveals significance, strips away self-serving excuses, lays truth bare, and both blunts pain and sharpens insight. (pg. 441, in Children of God, "A Conversation with Mary Doria Russell")

The title, Children of God, refers to the concept that we are all children of God and needed to complete God's plan. Each individual is valued and part of the plan, whether they know it or not. But the title also literally refers to the effect of children on society and, over time, their role in God's plan. Russell's science fiction format allows one character, Emilio Sandoz, to experience how much our perceptions of events and actions can change and evolve over time. She meant time itself to be a character.

When asked if there is a moral to the story, Mary Doria Russell says, "Don't be so damned quick to judge! The less we know about someone, the easier we find it to make a snap decision, to condemn or sneer or believe the worst. The closer you get, the more you know about the person or the situation in question, the harder it gets to be sure of your opinion, so remember that, and try to cut people a little slack. Like Emilio says, 'Everything we thought we understood--that was what we were most wrong about.' So the moral of the story is to be suspicious of your own certainty. Doubt is good." (pg. 447, in "A Conversation with Mary Doria Russell")

My rereads have only confirm how much I appreciate both of these novels. While The Sparrow has a greater emotional impact, Children of God completes the story.
Very Highly Recommended - one of the best; http://shetreadssoftly.blogspot.com/

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  SheTreadsSoftly | Mar 21, 2016 |
Emilio Sandoz is in the process of healing from his experiences on Rakhat, detailed in The Sparrow. He is exposed to Vincenzo Giuliani's Mafia family, the Camorra. At a wedding celebration, he meets Celestina, aged four, and her mother Gina, a divorcee with whom Emilio begins to fall in love. Emilio is released from the priesthood. He trains the second Jesuit expedition to Rakhat, composed of Sean Fein, Danny Iron Horse, and John Candotti, in the K'San (Jana'ata) and Ruanja (Runa) languages. He himself refuses to go. Gina is about to go on vacation, after which Emilio plans to marry her.

Unfortunately, while Gina is on vacation, Emilio is beaten and kidnapped by Carlo, Gina's ex-husband and Celestina's father. Emilio is kept in a constantly drugged state on the Giordano Bruno, Carlo's ship. They are actually working for the Jesuits and the Vatican, who want Sandoz to return to Rakhat. It is extremely important that the Jesuits put right (as much as possible) what they destroyed on Rakhat; the massacre of the first landing party, and the violent revolution of the Runa serving class that followed, have caused a rift between the Society of Jesus and the rest of the Roman Catholic Church.

Meanwhile, back on Rakhat, there is an unexpected survivor of the massacre; Sofia Mendes Quinn, grievously injured but her pregnancy intact, has been hidden from the Jana'ata patrols. She commands Runa troops in the revolution and is their Joan of Arc figure. She's been sending packets of information back to the Stella Maris, still in orbit around Rakhat, as was the normal practice of the original landing party. She has her baby with help from the locals. Soon, it is apparent that her son, Isaac, is autistic. Sometime later, the signal from the Stella Maris goes dead, but Sofia does not guess that it's because other Earthmen came to Rakhat and sent the ship home, let alone that Emilio Sandoz had been rescued and was aboard, headed back for the lengthy inquisition covered in The Sparrow.

Meanwhile, Hlavin Kitheri, the Jana'ata Reshtar (third-born prince) of Galatna, has fulfilled his promise to ambitious tradesman Supaari; when Supaari gave Emilio to Hlavin as a gift, Hlavin arranged a marriage between Supaari and his sister, Jholaa, who is not even told of their plans until the wedding is actually taking place. The ceremony includes consummation in front of everyone -- actually rape, because Jholaa was unprepared for marriage and did not desire Supaari. She detests him, and when she has a daughter, Supaari is told that the infant is deformed, and by tradition he must kill it. But on first glance he can see it is a lie, and a set-up -- a practical joke by Hlavin, to wipe out Supaari's new family line before it can begin. Remembering Anne, the doctor of the earth landing party who became his friend, he names his little girl Ha'anala, "like Anne". Taking her, he leaves behind everything and goes to his family. There, he recognizes that he has no place among the Jana'ata. Now, he swears hasta'akala (total dependence) to the Runa of Kashan village, where the revolution began. He has worked with them for decades, selling their merchandise in the city of Inbrokar. By law, a hasta'akala's patron must provide all his food. The Runa have been bred for many centuries as not only servants but food for the Jana'ata; but the vaKashani love Supaari to the point of volunteering to die for him and the child to eat (reflecting Jesus Christ's Eucharistic sacrifice, the most important sacrament in Catholicism).

Supaari becomes a spy for the Jana'ata, aiding in the extermination of his own species. One day, Isaac leaves. Ha'anala finds him, but recognizes that he will not go back. They stumble upon a group of Jana'ata people in the N'Jarr Valley in the mountains, and stay with them. Ha'anala later marries Shetri Laaks, one of these people, and has many children, although several of them die due to malnutrition; Ha'anala refuses to eat Runa.

Hlavin Kitheri now seizes the Paramountcy, the highest office in Inbrokar, by killing his entire family and framing Supaari for the murders. He hears of an extraordinary Jana'ata female, Suukmel. She advises him; he wants her, but she refuses to give him more than the chance to foster a child with her. Meanwhile Hlavin's son Rukari has escaped the massacre and gone to the N'Jarr Valley.

Hlavin fights Supaari, in hand-to-hand combat, without armor, and both die. Suukmel departs and finds the valley. The Jana'ata there believe they must find food other than Runa, but many are starving. There are game animals they could hunt, but they run the risk of being captured and killed by the Runa.

Emilio returns to Rakhat with the Giordano Bruno to find that the Runa have killed nearly all the Jana'ata and taken control of the planet for themselves. The Jesuits expected they would have to assist the Runa in their war for independence, but the Runa have won independently.

Sofia talks to Emilio. The N'Jarr Valley is found and Sofia sends Runa troops there, convinced that Ha'anala is keeping Isaac, now 40, captive. Ha'anala dies in childbirth, but Emilio saves the baby. One of the Jesuits, a Lakhota named Danny Iron Horse, works with Suukmel to arrange a reservation-like setup for the remaining Jana'ata on Rakhat.

In the end, Emilio and the Mafiosi return to earth on the Giordano Bruno, Sofia dies, and Suukmel stays in the N'Jarr valley with Ha'anala's children and Isaac, who thinks he has found proof of the existence of God in patterns of music.

Emilio comes home. Time has passed -- Gina is dead. At her grave, he is greeted by a lady who reveals herself as Gina's second daughter -- Emilio's daughter.

  bostonwendym | Mar 3, 2016 |
The Sparrow really touched me, and I was eager to return to Rakhat, not to mention to see how Sandoz handled his recovery. What I found was a mixed bag. A creative expansion on the world of Rakhat but a message and character development that moved in directions that left me feeling very little.

The presence of humans upset the delicate balance between the Jana’ata and the Runa. The humans demonstrated to the Runa that they didn’t need the Jana’ata, and thus a revolution was born. The thing is though this culture is just so truly alien that it’s hard to root for the Runa or the Jana’ata.

The Jana’ata have a depraved world, yes, but they are also truly predators who evolved from predators. It’s hard to hate on them when they’re basically cats walking around in medieval clothes. Well, of course they’re acting barbaric. They’re cats! And the thing is, they’re not just cruel to the Runa, they’re cruel to each other as well.

The one real disjointed bit of the narrative is that this culture reads as a developing one, as if they are from the 1200s or 1300s on Earth. Yet they somehow have enough technology that they could broadcast music to Earth? It makes no sense that they would be so backwards and yet simultaneously so advanced in science.

Similarly, the Runa are a people with a culture but they also are a prey species. They reproduce like mad when they have enough food, and they act like herd animals. Yakking constantly and with no real art or science developing. It is easy to see how these two cultures came to co-exist, as well as the fact that they need each other. Put another way, everyone thinks deer are cute, and they are. But if they exist in a world with no natural predators, they soon over-run the place until they have too much population for the land to support, and they start to starve. Yes, the co-existence between the Jana’ata and the Runa could be handled better (certainly with more clarity and more maturity) but the Runa and Jana’ata need each other. They co-evolved.My perspective on the Runa and Jana’ata impacts how I feel about the rest of the book.

Russell presents the idea that it’s ok for the Runa to become the dominant culture so long as they “allow” the “good” Jana’ata (the ones who have sworn off eating Runa and struggle along eating the eggs of some other creature that can barely sustain them. Truly barely. One character has multiple problem pregnancies due to malnutrition). Positing the idea that the Jana’ata are bad because they are predators, and the Runa are good because they are herbivores (with some outliers in both groups of course) is just hard to swallow. Bad and good is much more nuanced than that. Is a shark bad because it eats a seal because it’s hungry? No. But if a shark kills a seal because it’s fun to kill a seal and then swims off without eating it? Then one could argue that’s a bad shark with a bad nature. This level of nuance is just something I felt was missing from the book and the world.

I also found Sandoz’s path back to god to be a bit irritating, as well as the repeatedly presented idea that we can all have different interpretations of the one god, but there is definitely one. A whole alien planet with two sentient species, and no one can even entertain the idea that there might be more than one god? People are allowed to think there’s not one at all, although the book does present this as a shortcoming of those people’s natures. Basically, if they were a bit more willing to open they could at least be agnostic about the idea. The ultimate “proof” of the existence of god in the book is something that made me laugh. I won’t reveal what is found but suffice to say that if you’ve heard the argument about a watch proving there’s a watchmaker, it’s very similar to that one. After the insight and the gray areas allowed in the first book with regards to faith, I was disappointed.

If my review seems a bit mixed and all over the place that’s because that’s how this book read to me. There were chapters of beauty and then others that made me sigh and still others that made me scratch my head. It’s a mixed bag of content set in a complicated world with an ending that some readers would definitely find satisfying but I do not. I still enjoyed the read overall simply because I love visiting the world of Rakhat. But would I want to visit it again? Given the direction it was going, probably not. Although I would gladly visit the future Earth that gets to meet a Jana’ata or a Runa on our own turf.

Overall, readers of the first book who enjoyed it for Rakhat will enjoy getting to know more about both the Runa and the Jana’ata culture will enjoy the sequel, whereas those who appreciated it for its nuance and exploration of gray areas and difficult topics will be less satisfied.

Check out my full review. ( )
  gaialover | Jan 26, 2016 |
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Sweating and nauseated, Father Sandoz sat on the edge of his bed with his head in what was left of his hands.
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 044900483X, Paperback)

Children of God is the sequel to Mary Doria Russell's 1996 The Sparrow, which saw a Jesuit mission to the planet Rakhat end in disaster. The sole survivor of that mission, a priest named Emilio Sandoz, returned a beaten and broken man, having suffered rape and mutilation at the hands of enigmatic aliens. Now the Jesuits want to go back to Rakhat, and they want Sandoz aboard the new mission. But Sandoz has renounced his priesthood and even found a measure of happiness with his new wife and stepdaughter. Meanwhile, on Rakhat, contact with the humans has thrown the local culture into turmoil, precipitating a war between Rakhat's two sentient races. As forces conspire to send Emilio back to Rakhat--and toward a possible reconciliation with God--the planet verges on genocidal destruction. Children of God is a more polished novel than The Sparrow, and the story is equally compelling.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:09:11 -0400)

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A priest named Emilio Sandoz embarks on a quest to demystify God's providence that leads him to question the possibility of faith.

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