My rating: 5 of 5 stars
There’s a fandom term for stories like these called hurt/comfort. When other reviewers say that The Sparrow was a more “powerful” or “devastating” book, I think that’s largely what they mean. If The Sparrow was the hurt, Children of God is the comfort. It’s necessary and inevitable for any sad story that doesn’t want to conclude with a nihilistic worldview, and I don’t think Russell or her books do.
Is it, however, inferior to its predecessor? No, I don’t think so. There is no “sequelitis” here. This is very much a continuation of a single story. Russell’s thoughts and style are as engaging and potent as ever. Emilio is, necessarily, never as low as when we first met him, but that’s not because Russell has lost her emotional mojo but because he is beginning the slow, halting climb toward recovery. I won’t say towards “redemption” or a return of faith, because the point of the book is the continued exploration with his beliefs and I want to stay out of spoiler territory. Regardless of where he comes down on the issue providence, Russell’s focus on the positive influence of his relationships continues from The Sparrow.
Neither has she lost her gift of characterization. It’s true that the characters in the sequel don’t capture that same sense of a loving, mutually supportive group of friends as those of the maiden voyage to Rakhat, but that’s largely circumstantial. These new pioneers are chosen for practical reasons: Physical size and power (to avoid Emilio’s earlier fate), intellectual rigor, ethical flexibility. These are characters who can be trusted to survive and do the right thing by the mission, if not by each other. We cannot fully trust them as we trusted Sofia, Anne, or D.W. In a way, they are more driven. They go not to explore and make first contact, but with a knowledge of the dangers that await them and with more of a sense of personal mission that each is fulfilling, whether that be altruistic or not. The smaller Emilio among these ruthless and burly men is chillingly reminiscent of his time among the Jana’ata, and potentially just as dangerous. Though less lovable, these new characters are no less interesting and watching them navigate their mixed morals is fascinating.
Perhaps most interesting of all, we get a greater glimpse into the minds, culture, and motivation of the Jana’ata where before we really only got to know and love the Runa. In The Sparrow, Supaari was presented as entirely self-interested and mercantile; Hlavin Kitheri perverted and cruel. Hlavin is never really redeemed or made sympathetic, but we at least see more of what drives him and the culture that shaped his peculiar behavior. With Supaari, we finally get an understanding of his side of the tragic misunderstandings and see that he, likes the humans, “meant no harm.” It always struck me as confusing how he could not have understood what he did to Emilio and Marc, so it was nice for Russell to flesh that out more satisfyingly (no pun intended).
These two novels are very much of a piece, so I doubt it’s going to fundamentally change anyone’s perception of The Sparrow one way or another. However, if you’re looking for a moving story, engrossing characters, and thought-provoking science fiction, I strongly recommend the pair.