Mary Doria Russell's "The Sparrow" is an award winning book, a story of first contact. It is told in two intermingled narratives – one leading up to the contact and one after the fact, a questioning of the sole survivor. While portions were though provoking, I find this book less than it should be.
I enjoyed reading about most of the personalities in the early part of the story, although many were more caricature than character. While reading these sections, my thoughts kept drifting to their eventual deaths, which was distracting. As a team, they were a little too conveniently matched, but then this is fiction after all.
The other sections of the book, dealing with the aftermath, were used to either to lead the next portion of the early story or to delve deeper into the main character's crisis of faith. This last part culminates at the end of the book in a too-neat wrap up. In the final chapter, the poise regained by the main character had me believing he had been faking earlier, which was probably not the author's intention.
This story doesn't fit into the category of Hard Science Fiction by any means. Most of the radio traffic and space travel is close to believable, but from that point forward it becomes less so. An oxygen atmosphere, bipedal humanoids, edible foods – it either strains credibility, or truly is Deus Vult (God wills it).
The latter phrase is used often by the main characters, and throughout the book this is in question. The title of the book refers to the fact that not even a sparrow falls without God knowing of it. Presumably the main character is representative of that sparrow, whose story we follow through both portions of the book. Up until the last chapter, I too wanted to follow this character, even though his path was very dark towards the end.
The most thought-provoking section was where the main character discussed the actions of the aliens, reflecting on the actions taken by many other cultures and the stories created to justify them. This and how it plays into a first contact situation was very interesting to me, and I will probably read the sequel to see how it all comes out.