Wow. Just .... wow.
Late last night, I finished reading The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell. I think I'm still in shock from the ending. This was simply a phenomenal book.
In short, The Sparrow is the story of a Jesuit mission to an alien planet in orbit of Alpha Centauri. The longer version is this: a technician at a radio telescope in Puerto Rico discovers snatches of alien music. Father Emilio Sandoz immediately wants to go and meet the alien Singers. The Jesuits finance the mission quietly and, without telling anyone, send a small crew to the planet of Rakhat to meet the natives and learn as much as they can.
But something goes wrong. When the book picks up, we learn that only Father Sandoz has survived the Jesuit mission and nobody knows what happened. No one except him. And so the Jesuits do their best to reconstruct what happened, not only to the ill-fated Rakhat mission, but to Father Sandoz as well.
I had a hard time putting this book down. Mary Doria Russell crafted it perfectly. She jumps between two different stories seamlessly, telling us what happened to Sandoz after he returned to Earth, and then back to the mission itself. The beauty of this book is that even though you know the basics of what happened to the Jesuit mission (they all die) and what happened to Father Sandoz (... I won't go into that here), there are still big question marks that hover over the story and keep you reading. You know that the crew dies, but she doesn't reveal the how or the why. That's enough to keep you going through the book to its explosive conclusion.
I do have one complaint: it's obvious that Mary Doria Russell isn't Christian. I'm sorry, but her Jesuits didn't totally ring true for me. They kept turning to Jewish mythology for comfort. If I remember correctly, they only quoted from the New Testament once (Matthew 10:29, where Russell got her title). I don't think that true Christians would approach things quite as these did, especially not the Father General of the Jesuits and the way he looks at the whole mess at the end of the book.
That aside, this was a great read and well worth it. Just make sure you brace yourself. You're in for one heck of a ride.