Book Review: Children of God by Mary Doria Russell (Series, #2)
Father Sandoz, the only person from the humanity’s first mission to Rakhat to return to Earth, has barely begun to recover from his ordeal when the Jesuits asks him to assist in preparing the second team. Reticent to assist anyone to go to Rakhat but enjoying the use of the languages again, he agrees.
Meanwhile, one survivor of the mission joins forces with the Runa and a rogue Jana’ata to bring about justice. What world will the second mission find when they return? It certainly won’t be the one previously held in a tenuous working balance between predator and prey.
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.
4 out of 5 stars
Illness(es) featured: Autism Spectrum Disorder