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The Children of God
By Mary Doria Russell

Reviewed by Rob Gates
Rating: (alone) 9.5 out of 10
Rating: (with The Sparrow) 10 out of 10

Last year at Worldcon in San Antonio, I had the pleasure of hearing a bright, articulate, and passionate woman talk about religion and science fiction.  That woman was the author of a single novel, The Sparrow.  I picked up a copy right away and had it signed by the author who had so impressed me with her comments.  Amazingly, I discovered that this single novel had been making increasingly large waves - winning praise from critics and garnering the James Tiptree Jr. Award.  I moved it up to the top of my reading list.  It was everything that science fiction can be and more.  (See the Nov. '97 LSF newsletter for my review of The Sparrow.)  As many of you know, I've been praising this book vocally ever since, at every opportunity.  I've described her writing as "science fiction on the level of LeGuin."  Now I have something else to praise about Mary Doria Russell:  her ability to sustain that astounding quality through a second novel.
 
The Children of God picks up the story of The Sparrow just three or four days later.  Emilio Sandoz is slowly trying to regain some semblance of a life.  Though he has been able to detail the events of the first mission to the planet Rakhat, he is haunted by the things he has seen and done and had done to him.  He is bitter at the Church, more so at God.  But our interaction with Rakhat is not over:  the music we hear from their world is changing; and a second contact mission is being put together.  Sandoz refuses to return, but forces are at work to insure that he confronts the consequences of the first mission.  Those forces include the Jesuit Father General (who believes that there must be a reason for what happened to Sandoz), the Pope (who believes that Sandoz is still beloved of God and must regain his connection with God), and the Camorra (who know that Sandoz's knowledge of Rakhat will be instrumental in arranging good trade deals).  Sandoz refuses and refuses and refuses again, as he tries to build a new life with a caring fiancee and her daughter.  But what must be, must be; and in the end the Camorra make him an offer he cannot refuse.
 
But The Children of God is not just the story of Sandoz's return to Rakhat.  For, as we watch events in Sandoz's life unfold, we are taken back to Rakhat to see the changes engendered by the events in The Sparrow.  The fragile relationship between the two native intelligent species is breaking down; revolutionary change is under way, led by Sofia Mendes, who was last assumed dead.  The populous Runa are striking back against their masters, the Jana'ata; and Jana'ata society is being turned into chaos due to the changes wrought by the Jana'ata male who had brutalized Sandoz, changes which include allowing females more influence and allowing the Runa more freedom.
 
And mostly The Children of God is a story about children - the children of war, the children of villains, the children of heroes - and the price they all pay for the actions of their parents, as well as the changes they can bring about.  Foremost among these children are Isaac, the autistic child of Sofia Mendes and Jimmy Quinn, and Ha'anala, the child of Supaari VaGayjur.  While the fighting between Runa and Jana'ata escalates, Isaac and Ha'anala form a colony comprised of both species, living and working together in peace.  But the Jana'ata are in chaos, the Runa are rampaging against their former masters, and humans are returning to Rakhat - peace may not be possible.
 
As with The Sparrow, Russell tells her story by moving from time to time and from place to place; and again it works marvelously.  Her societies are well-crafted, her characters are emotionally full and motivationally defined, and her prose is magnificent.  Whereas in The Sparrow we knew the ending, in The Children of God we must wait - learning about what happens one page at a time, not knowing the future.
 
Like The Sparrow, it is not the brilliant writing, the intriguing races and cultures, or the action that is at the heart of The Children of God.  It is the moral and ethical questions the story raises.  We see that people are not just evil or just good, that we are all capable of both great and horrible things.  We see the ways that violence and revenge can cloud the hearts of good people.  We see that children are often the hardest hit by the actions of their parents, bound into ways of acting that they cannot change and carrying the baggage of generations past.  But, most importantly, we find an answer to many of the questions raised by The Sparrow.  At the heart of The Sparrow was the question of Job: if a Divine Being exists and is all-powerful and loving of all creation, why is there evil in the world, why is there suffering, why do bad things happen to good people?  The answer we find in The Children of God is that perhaps we simply can't see enough of the canvas to understand - that, over time, wonderful things can happen because of a single horrible moment.
 
The most rewarding thing about The Children of God, though, is the message of redemption and hope.  There is nothing that cannot be overcome if we look and try hard enough.  Emilio Sandoz remembers how to cry, to feel,and to laugh.  Sofia Mendes remembers how to love.  The children can create new ways of thinking.  And we all walk away the better for it.
 
Find this book.  Read both it and The Sparrow.  You won't be disappointed; and you won't walk away unchanged.

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