Book: The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell
Challenge: A book by a female author
I'm really not sure where to begin with reviewing this book, or even how to accurately express my opinion of it. If you've ever seen the 1991 Canadian film Black Robe, this novel is its science fiction brother (one note of interest: the events that inspired that film are briefly mentioned in the one of the early chapters in this book). Basically, reading The Sparrow was one of the most emotionally draining reading experiences I have ever had. I would not put this book on a list of "my favorites", but I would say that if you want a thought provoking book that rips your heart out and then proceeds to stomp all over it in cleats while extolling the virtues of Existentialism, you're in luck.
Essentially, this novel is all about one man's crisis of faith mixed with a First Contact story. It opens with Father Emilio Sandoz at the depths of his despair after having survived a horrific ordeal on another planet, and then proceeds to take you through how he got to that point, step by step. Interestingly, unlike other stories I have encountered with the "crisis of faith and/or identity" theme, The Sparrow seems to offer no real solution to the protagonist's dilemma. "It happened, make of it what you will," is the impression I got from this book. Which, to be honest, is a bit of nice break from other authors who feel the need to include a thinly-veiled sermon at the end (I'm looking at you, Castle of Wolfenbach).
As a note of warning: don't get too attached to any of the main characters and just remember that Father Sandoz is the only survivor of the mission.