I finished Mary Doria Russell’s debut novel, The Sparrow, last night. I’ll say first that I liked the book and enjoyed reading it. As I neared the end over the weekend, I dragged my family to the library with me (arriving only twenty minutes before they were to close) just so I’d have the sequel on hand when I finished. I was enjoying it enough to want to continue with wherever the author might take the story next.

That said, the ending left me somewhat…deflated. The short prologue foreshadows catastrophe, and the first page informs the reader that our protagonist is the lone survivor of a failed interstellar first-contact mission. So I knew not to expect a triumphant closing to the ill-fated flashbacks. But I still expected both a more shocking or climactic series of fatal events, and some kind of poignant observation or redeeming revelation by our protagonist or his associates. Instead, the somewhat abrupt ending (while not necessarily hurried ending) was steeped in irony, futility, and justification for the protagonist’s despair and anger.

At first, I wasn’t sure what to make of the book once I finished. I knew not to expect a happy ending, and yet I still held out hope for something more (even when the Jamaican bobsled team of Cool Runnings loses their climactic race due to sled sabotage, they still carry their sled across the finish line to rounds of applause and cheering from the Olympic crowds).

It took a while for it to sink into my head that this book wasn’t meant to be a roller-coaster ride of climaxes, under-dogs, and heroes. There was no Gandalf to lead the Rohirrim from the east at dawn of the fifth day and turn the tides at Helm’s Deep. Bad things happened, and nothing came about to change or even justify them.

And now I’m reading the sequel. I wasn’t sure I wanted to in the hour or so following my completion of The Sparrow. I didn’t exactly regret reading the book, but I momentarily wondered if I had wasted my time. But I eventually accepted that a book that raises philosophical question but doesn’t force its own answers at you isn’t a bad thing (in fact, in the case of The Sparrow I believe that would have been exactly the wrong thing to do). So trusting Mary Doria Russell to tell a story with characters I care about, events I’m interested in, and questions I feel are good to be asking is all fairly easy to do now that I’ve finished and had a chance to reflect.

I wasn’t planning to write a review today, but I did mean to read some other people’s reviews this morning (not to get ideas for my own review, but simply to find more insight into the book). The first and only review I’ve read so far today is this one by Steven H. Silver. I especially liked that he addressed my biggest problem with the plot (and easily least favorite chapter):

“On [some] levels, the novel does not work as well. Despite the backing of the Society of Jesus, the mission ot Rakhat retains the flavor of a 1950s sf novel in which the characters decide to build a spaceship in their backyard.”

I agree with Silver’s closing enough to want to borrow it here for my own:

“The Sparrow is a novel of ideas and characters. Not the sort of ideas which make the reader gasp and say ‘Wow,’ but the type of ideas which make the reader continue to think about them long after the book has been set aside….If the action occasionally slows to allow more philosophical and religious discussion, it does so in order to make The Sparrow a stronger novel.”

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