In the beginning I thought I might actually like the sequel even better because we learn so much more about the fascinating alien species that Russell created. However, certain technical details about the book make it a more difficult read. The Sparrow jumped backward and forward in time, but there were only two basic time sequences and it was done in a very controlled and orderly way. In Children of God several different time periods are involved and in some cases chapters are even broken between two times because the sections are too short for a whole chapter. It's difficult to ascertain where particular happenings fit in relation to previous chapters. A table of contents would help, making it easier to see the shape of the timeline at a glance.
Because of the large geographic sweep of events, a map of the Rakhat lands in question (perhaps showing some of the migrations) would also help the reader to get a visual picture of events.
As a writer myself, I get the sense that in The Sparrow Russell was writing from what I call inspiration. I would bet anything that she had the whole story conceived in her head and all she had to do was transcribe it. In Children of God, I sense more improvisation, more tentativeness. It's as if she were thinking, "I've got to finish Emilio's story, but what should happen? Well, this might work and this, but I'm not sure -- I'll have to try out some things ... " She may have had the ending in mind (the essential business with the music and the DNA) and certain other events along the way, but a lot of the filling feels improvised. She keeps introducing new characters with only a brief role in the plot. And the end feels rushed to me, as if she were saying to herself, "This is getting too long -- let's hurry and get it over with." And while the fight between the two champions was skillfully described, there is a sense of futility about it rather than a truly epic struggle, and the war that follows seems like a blip, important only for its outcome. Of course, she is not really trying to write epic fantasy here, but rather philosophical and psychological speculation, so emphasizing the battles to a greater degree would likely be superfluous.
In the author interview at the end of the book, Russell talks about how Chapter 21 was the hardest to write. In it she summarizes 20 years of Rakhat history. She says, "I rewrote that chapter a dozen times ... I tried a straight historical narrative and that didn't work. I tried a lot of stuff, but ultimately the least bad solution to this narrative problem was to convey the information in a conversation between the two canniest political minds in the story. ... It wasn't a perfect solution, but it was the best I was able to come up with ... "
Well, I can certainly empathize with that! What she's doing is breaking the rule of showing and not telling, but frankly I don't really subscribe to that rule! Sometimes showing would require a whole novel in itself. For the sake of brevity, you have to tell certain things. In my Termite Queen I used a chunk of 8 printed pages to summarize 900 years of Earth's future history. Certainly there was no way I could put that whole history in narrative form, and it would feel highly artificial to have two characters sit down and discuss it in that much detail. So I simply chose to put it in a knotty chunk, which readers can skim or even skip if they want to (although I don't recommend doing that!). It was the "least bad solution"!
Now, I must touch on the theology and philosophy, because I think Russell achieved her purpose. In the author interview, she speaks about needing to solve Emilo's dilemma: "Either God is vicious -- deliberately causing evil or at least allowing it to happen -- or Emilio is a deluded ape who's taken a lot of old folktales far too seriously. That may not be good theology, but at the beginning of Children of God Emilio believes those are his only choices: bitterness or atheism, hatred or absurdity."
Russell always works from the premise that there is a God who has a purpose for us. The almost inarticulate Isaac enunciates to Sandoz the ultimate conclusion here: "It's God's music. You came here so I could find it," thus revealing to Emilio the purpose for his suffering: that the fact humans and aliens are all children of God could indeed be "proven" through a scientific construct. Even though I don't work on that premise, there is a similarity between that statement and my Mythmaker Precept No. 19: Take joy in sharing your genetic heritage with all the bio-organisms of this planet, and of the universe. My statement is less lyrical, but the idea of the music of the spheres being encapsulated in the DNA of all biological organisms is strikingly similar. So even though my premises are humanist and I don't try to maintain that these things were "God's purpose" (something I feel we can't prove), nevertheless I can see a strong connection here between what Mary Doria Russell is trying to say and what I'm trying to say in all of my own writings. In my world, Emilio would have a third choice -- to view both good and evil as coming from the inner nature of humanity and of those who share in the qualities that make us human -- those who have evolved the power to reject evil and find the Right Way within themselves.