When the Sparrow Falls, by Neil Sharpson, is a great novel. The writing is excellent, the plot is thrilling, it’s extremely emotional, the characters are great, and the themes provide smart and insightful commentary on our current political landscape. It does all of this in a relatively small package of about 300 pages. It is probably the best thing I have read this year so far and it is a shoo-in for our best-of list at the end of the year.
Sparrow is a spy thriller set in a sort of North Korea analogous country called the Caspian Republic. The world is now run by AI supercomputers, and the Caspian Republic was founded on the idea that it is the last hold out in the fight for a humanity run by humanity. We follow the life of Agent Nikolai South, a State Security agent who works hard enough to remain unnoticed in his country. But when a Party propagandist is killed – and is discovered to have secretly been an AI in hiding – he’s given a new mission. He must chaperone a second AI from outside country borders as she (the AI has a gender) attempts to investigate what happened. But when South sees that she, the first “machine” ever knowingly allowed into the country, bears an uncanny resemblance to his late wife, he begins to question everything he knows while defending the AI for various Caspian groups who think she might destroy the Republic for good.
The bones of this story are built on a spy thriller, the paper pusher kind that John le Carré likes to write. The Caspian Republic is a surveillance state, filled to the brim with espionage and secrets. If you are simply looking for a good thriller, this definitely will meet that criteria with a fresh science fiction twist. However, Sparrow is a lot more than its spy origins.
The first thing that gripped me about the book is the excellent writing. The metaphors, analogies, observations, and characterizations that fill the book are transportive in nature and flawless in execution. The prose feels both poetic and smart at the same time while also making it easier for the reader to digest some complicated ideas and beliefs. The narrative style feels like it is half an autobiography of Agent South and half a historical recounting of the Capsian Republic. The book starts with a very narrow view of what is going on in both the Caspian Republic and the larger world, but it widens to revelatory effect as the book progresses. There are also (in-universe) historical quotes at the start of each chapter that add flavor and insight into the world. My personal favorite was:
“The Progressive Caspian People’s Party. A footnote that dreamed it was a chapter.”
–Samuel Papalazarou Junior
The characters are also fantastic. We spend the majority of the time with South, who is extremely well realized. His personality begins very muted but slowly warms up over the course of the novel in a very satisfying way. On top of South, there is a delightful roster of supporting characters including other agents, the AI named Lily that South is escorting, and the various historical Capsian figures that get brief vignettes in the story. Sharpson is so good at getting you to care about these people and getting invested in their struggles. And struggle they do.
This is not a happy book. Many of the themes surround the purpose and effect of human suffering, the nature of religion and god, the responsibility and effect of government, and the nature of humanity. I don’t actually agree with all of the conclusions that Sharpson comes to through the exploration of the themes, but I do think they were presented in a fantastically compelling manner, and I found myself thinking about the points of the book every time I set it down. The last fifth of the story also has a tonal shift that feels a bit mismatched with the rest of the story. The first 80% is all a spy thriller from South’s perspective, while the last piece is written as a third-person historical recounting.
When the Sparrow Falls is an absolute home run of a book that succeeds on every possible metric I review books by. It will be one of our top picks of 2021 and we recommend getting your hands on it as soon as possible. Its poetic writing and sharp observations will make you think, while its thrilling nature and great characters will keep you engrossed. The Quill To Live highly recommends this book to everyone.
Rating: When the Sparrow Falls – 9.5/10