Horrifying. The ending is particularly gruesome, and worse than what I imagined despite the foreshadowing.
I don't know whether to give it 1 or 5 stars. Not 5, as the characters were too one-dimensional and stereotypical -- with the exception of Sandoz, whom I loved, and the priests hearing his story: Vince, John, Ed, Voelker. Although these latter characters were less well-drawn, they were more complex.
The flaws are many, but the damn thing grabbed me by the short-and-curlies and didn't let go. So first, the downside:
The entire first contact party I could take or leave, so I didn't much care as they were picked off one by one. They were only there to throw Emilio's psychology and conflict(s) into relief, and they served that purpose well. As I mentioned in one of my status updates, the expositional dialogue was aggravating. The likelihood of a group of friends, each of them schooled in a different but vital academic discipline, becoming the first crew sent to make first contact with an alien race -- well, it defies all credibility. It was all so obviously designed to provide the backdrop for Emilio's crisis of faith, it was just plain silly. And prevented any attachment forming.
I found Anne's voice particularly annoying (and note with some amusement that the author considers her to be autobiographical). The characterizations of D.W., the Winchester-toting, ex-fighter pilot gay Texan and Marc, the hockey-loving French-Canadian artist priest were laughable--and insulting--stereotypes, although none of the others were immune from this type of typecasting.
HOWEVER .... (here's the good stuff):
The deepest questions of faith and belief vied with the intriguing premise of the first contact scenario and the anthropology of the two Rakhat races to hold my attention throughout. For these themes, unfolding carefully and deftly through two parallel story and timelines, the book gets very high marks.
I adored the Runa (as I was meant to), which meant that their ultimate disposition just about totalled me (as it was meant to). I pictured them as some kind of cross between a horse and a kangaroo, and kept thinking of Swift's Houyhnhnms
. The irony of the anthropomorphism I take note of now, only in retrospect. Shame on me.
By about page 200, I was thoroughly hooked by the story and by the mystery of Emilio, and looking forward to finishing the book off on a short vacation I was about to take. Imagine my distress when I found upon arrival that I had forgotten to pack it. It was worth a one-hour round trip to the nearest town with a Chapters (unfortunately, not in stock). It was not worth a six-hour drive home, however. So that means -- 4 stars.
Very unlike most of what I usually read, and I look forward to the sequel. I only hope Russell has gained some mastery of characterization.
ETA (Jul 27/09): damn this book. I should've stuck with my very first reaction--which was 1 star--based on a logic I saw Jo use on here once for A Fine Balance
: you can't love a book that is this sad.
This book kept me up, tossing fitfully, last night. The violence of the images is truly disturbing and, I wonder, what is the point? Did it HAVE to be this gruesome? Really???? I feel sure the author has an axe to grind here, the dialogue was so pedantic and the plot so contrived to lead the reader where she wants you to go. But where is that, exactly? It would seem that we are to side with Emilio, and agree that we are alone in a Godless universe. (I have no problem with that as a rule, but the journey the Jesuit took to get there was heartwrenching and soul-destroying--for him certainly, and on a much lesser scale, for me as a reader. Compelling psychological and I suppose theological journey, but I don't need to read or watch Emilio's torture to get to that same destination. It seemed so gratuitous ... and Russell then undermines it completely! She backs off the conclusion by allowing the Father General to claim that Emilio's questioning of the meaning of what has occurred to him is proof that he has not
Now I'm pissed. And tired. 1 star for you.
Update 6/2/10: 4 stars, upon further reflection after reading the sequel [b:Children of God|16948|Children of God|Mary Doria Russell|http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/51GT-DAsYHL._SL75_.jpg|882029].