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Recent Reading: Children of God by Mary Doria Russell - Mo's Journal
December 24th, 2007
09:49 am

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Recent Reading: Children of God by Mary Doria Russell
This is the sequel to The Sparrow, which I reviewed here. I found the first book a captivating, albeit flawed, First Contact novel with religious overtones. The Society of Jesus sends the first mission to the planet Rakhat, from which radio broadcasts that sound like people singing have come to Earth. Charmed by music from another planet, Father Emilio Sandoz and his fellow explorers - three other Jesuit priests, a married couple, and a single man and single woman - look on their mission as part of God's plan to bring intelligent species together. As happens even on this planet when people encounter unfamiliar civilizations, misunderstandings abound and the mission ends tragically, with Emilio the only survivor. A broken man - physically, emotionally, and spiritually - he returns to Earth to find that he is the subject of revulsion within his own order and tabloid smearing to the world at large for crimes he supposedly committed while on Rakhat. Much of the novel's exposition reveals to the reader what really happened on Rakhat.

Children of God is concerned primarily with the second Jesuit excursion to the planet Rakhat, one intended to heal wounds of various kinds. Emilio - against his will - is sent back along with a new team. Russell's method for getting Emilio on the mission (kidnapped by the Mafia on the eve of his wedding, after he has left the priesthood and fallen in love) is completely implausible and she even apologizes for it in the Acknowledgements. In fact, the whole Earth subplot - with Emilio's romance with a cardboard character and her Mafia connections - is a weak point of the novel. Luckily, the focus is not on Earth but on Rakhat, and Russell's world building is exemplary.

Rakhat has two different sentient species that look similar but have evolved separately. One, the Jana'ata, are the dominant race, with a very structured and controlled society. Among the Jana'ata are the singers that originally attracted Earth's attention. The much more numerous Runa serve the Jana'ata masters in a variety of capacities: as domestics, as workers in their various business enterprises, as concubines. And, as the visitors of Earth found to their horror in the first book, the peaceful herbivorous Runa are also slaughtered and eaten by their Jana'ata masters.

Children of God deals with revolutionary change on Rakhat, as the Runa arise and overthrow their Jana'ata masters. Sophia Mendez, who started the uprising in the first book and was presumed to have been killed in the first battle, actually survived and became the architect of the revolution. She and her autistic son Isaac are the only humans on Rakhat. She joins forces with a renegade Jana'ata who escapes with his baby daughter, who had been slated for infanticide. Together they form a family of sorts, raising Isaac and Ha'anala - the baby Jana'ata - together as brother and sister. They form a Runa army and transform the planet Rakhat.

By the time the second Jesuit mission arrives the Jana'ata are almost extinct. The reader's view of the master race as wholly evil is challenged by pockets of Jana'ata kindness and compassion, by more information on just how the two species interrelated over the course of their existence, and most of all by a small interspecies community led by Ha'anala when she grows up. From beginning to heart-breaking ending, Russell's message is that things aren't always what they seem to be and that life and ethics are infinitely more complex and nuanced than they seem at first.

I enjoyed this book considerably more than the first, which I had quite liked. Russell has some problems with plot and plausibility that were evident in both books, but in this one they were much more pronounced in the Earth segment of the book, which is brief. I found the characters in the second book more compelling and more fully realized, for the most part, and the philosophical questions better integrated with the personal story. I felt so for the plight of the characters that I cried through much of the second half of the book and find myself thinking about them - particularly Ha'anala - at odd times since. Children of God is definitely a book worth reading and one I expect will stay with me for a long time.

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