Title: When the Sparrow Falls
Author: Neil Sharpson
Publisher: Tor Books
Publication date: June 29, 2021
Genre: Science Fiction, Dystopian
One Sentence Summary: When the victim of a killing is discovered to be a “machine” in the last sanctuary for humans, Agent Nikolai South is tasked with escorting his widow, but something greater seems to be a play, and it may have to do with this machine who bears an uncanny resemblance to his late wife.
When the Sparrow Falls is the kind of dystopian novel I’ve been searching for. I love that I could clearly figure out how the world went from here to there. At times, the Caspian Republic felt like a post-war country, but there was a sci-fi edge to it with AI running the world outside of the Republic. The characters were all playing complicated games and had secrets hiding up their sleeves like a deck of cards, all of them maneuvering South around the board like a chess piece, no matter how he tried to outwit them. When the Sparrow Falls is an incredible dystopian novel with fear in the air and change on the horizon.
When AI arose and the reins of government handed over to the Triumvirate, a trio of AI from three different continents, the Caspian Republic was formed to be the last home for humans and humankind. AI are not allowed and one has never set foot inside its borders. Until now.
After his unfortunate death, famed journalist Paulo Xirau is discovered to have been a machine. Around the same time, Agent Nikolai South and his partner are called in to investigate the deaths of twin sisters. They discover it’s a case of consciousness transfers (contran), in which the women’s consciousnesses were transferred out of their bodies in order to put them into AI bodies, which is illegal in the Republic. But, before he can investigate further, South is called on for a special task: escort the deceased AI’s widow to identify his remains.
But the widow, Lily, bears an uncanny resemblance to South’s late wife. Even though she is machine, he begins to see her in a different light, one that will have him caught in many webs as the Republic is on the brink of incredible change.
For years, I’ve called myself a fan of dystopian fiction, but hadn’t ever actually found one I loved. In their own ways, they all failed to convince me of their dystopian nature. When the Sparrow Falls is the first to give me everything I didn’t know I needed all of my dystopian reads to have. I loved that I could clearly figure out how our world became South’s world. Of course, there were some things I had to assume, but it was like following breadcrumbs, and then the world just exploded in my mind.
The world building is fantastic. The history is all laid out, not in a linear manner, but in bits and pieces that are still easy to follow and put together. The world makes complete sense to me, and even feels plausible as a possible future. There were some things that did feel a little far-fetched, but I loved how impressive the Caspian Republic was. There was so much depth to it that it made me feel like I was there, following South around.
As great as the world building is, though, there isn’t exactly much else to the book. There is some mystery, but it’s not nearly as front and center as I expected considering the curious fact that Lily appears identical to his late wife. South’s job is to escort Lily, not try to figure out who contranned the sisters, but there are a lot of moving pieces around him and he and Lily seemed to be somewhere in the middle. This isn’t so much the reader looking over his shoulder, peering in to see how he’s sorting things out. It’s more of we’re in his head, seeing history from his eyes, and putting together a timeline and information about all these moving pieces to figure out the next step. While the mystery is deftly and softly tied into the story, I felt it was more about the detailing of history and South putting together pieces from his past to figure things out in the present. Otherwise, he spends an awful lot of time talking to people and sitting around while Lily works on identifying her husband’s remains, which is itself a fascinating point.
But I still really enjoyed reading this. I was surprised by just how easily and quickly I flew through it. The world was so immersive, the history so fascinating, that I couldn’t wait to pick it up again. It’s quite incredible that all the plots, machinations, and uncovering of plots and secret identities happened in a very compressed amount of time. In a way, it seems fast-paced, but there’s so much thinking and retelling of the past that it kind of messed with my sense of how time progressed in the book.
The only thing that really bothered me was most of the last 10 chapters. It got weird. Of course, the book required a good ending and couldn’t really end earlier than those last several chapters, but I wish it had been smoother. Instead, it was a bit jarring and kind of knocked me out of the story. Still, it did provide a good end for all the characters.
The characters were all remarkable. Many of them did blend together and I had a difficult time remember who was in which Party (which also confused me a lot), but the main characters were absolutely fascinating. The higher ups have their own orders and chess games going on and absolutely played their public and private roles to perfection. Lily felt like such a nice breath of fresh air despite being a machine. Being in a human body is completely new to her and she’s stuck with the duality of being human and AI. I both loved and hated South. As the narrator, the reader comes to know him very well. He’s a good worker, just going along under the radar, but there’s a lot of depth to him, a lot from his past that explains just about everything about him. But it very often felt like the story was spiraling out of control around him and he was just caught up in it for the ride. He was overshadowed by the world and the story, which felt weird considering the reader gets the story through his eyes.
Still, When the Sparrow Falls is the most impressive dystopian novel I’ve had the pleasure to read. I loved everything about the world and was quite pleasantly surprised by just how in-depth the characters were. They all had their histories and motivations and it all helped push the story forward. It did feel like everything just suddenly decided to come to a head with Lily’s arrival, but I suppose everything needs a catalyst and she was convenient. Overall, though, a delightful dystopian read with tons to offer a reader.
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Thank you to NetGalley and the publisher for a review copy. All opinions expressed are my own.