Cover Image: When the Sparrow Falls

When the Sparrow Falls

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Member Reviews

What a surprise! I really liked this one! I have to admit, I don't love this cover. But the book is a slow burn with some interesting world building and characters. I felt myself completely pulled in and was surprised a bit by the end. This is a well crafted story and I enjoyed it!

A huge thank you to the author and publisher for providing an e-ARC via Netgalley. This does not affect my opinion regarding the book.
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I received a copy of this story from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

3.5 stars if I could.

Honestly, I'm not entirely sure how I feel about this book. It's not my usual fare but I enjoyed it nonetheless. I'm not as in love with it as other reviewers and I can't figure out if that's down to personal taste or the book itself.

The sci-fi element is lighter than I was expecting, as is the action of the story. There's large dumps of information to set the scene and establish the world with short bursts of action in between.

I liked the characters a lot. Sally and Augusta were darkly funny and Lily was exactly how I expected her to be. It was harder at times to pin down Nikolai's essence since he is clearly telling the story and looking back but I enjoyed him, too.

I didn't love the ending. It got muddy and info-dumped when it felt like it should have been the culmination of a lot of action. Loose ends were tied up and there's a thread of hope weaving through everything but I didn't have that satisfied feeling of a story well-concluded.

It's certainly interesting, especially as political and societal commentary, but it isn't one of my favorites. I'd recommend reading it if you're in the mood for something different.
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I struggled immediately to feel immersed in the story and, honestly, to follow what was happening. Sci-fi is usually one of my favorite genres, so it's unfortunate I wasn't able to connect more.
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A very different take on a world where AI exists and is the dominant force although still tempered with humanity.

The story is told by one of the few remaining mortals and shows as ever, how political power corrupts and it is the "little people" who suffer.

A little slow to get into this but soon it was compelling and wanted to keep reading to the eventual denouement.
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A gripping detective/futurepolice story that combines touches of Blade Runner and the Expanse in a world where the nation is divided, body counts are increasing and Conscious Transfer is the new norm. While the story was complex and rich it was a touch hard to follow on audio with some of the side characters and locales. All in all a solid page-turning dimly-lit cop-espionage kind of book.
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This is one of the three best books I have read in 2021. The world is divided between the vast majority of people who eagerly upload themselves to live exalted lives in cyborg bodies supported by the digital cloud, and a small minority who reject this new AI tech. Elsewhere in the world you can make this decision yourself, but in the Caspian Republic (located roughly where Azerbaijan is today) uploading is banned and anyone involved in the illicit trade is severely punished. Then the unimaginable happens, Paulo Xirao, a prominent figure in the anti-AI movement, is murdered and found out to be a machine. Agent Nikolai South is a law officer who chases these criminals is put on the case and then detailed to watch over Xirao's wife Lily, who has been given permission to come into the Republic to identify her husband's remains. Lily, who is an AI, looks exactly like Smith's late wife.

Complex, dark and powerful, this book compares favorably with the better cold war spy thrillers. If you are widely read in SF, you will see parallels there too. The Caspian Republic is fighting a rear-guard action against the will of the people and, like the Eastern European dictatorships of the 1990s, must resort to brutality to hang on.

This really is a must read book. I can't imagine that it will not be nominated for major awards.
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I enjoyed this book. Different. Thriller set in the future, with lots of AI and whether that is good or not. Thought the characters were good, and the pacing was also good. #WhentheSparrowFalls #NetGalley
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Agent Nikolai South lives in a country where Artificial Intelligence is banned, and uploading yourself into the machine world is the worst offense you can commit. When the Party's foremost propagandist is murdered and found out to be a machine himself, his wife---an AI---is granted special clearance to collect his belongings. The plot thickens when South is assigned to protect her and sees that she looks like his late wife.

All of this sets up a book that explores the definition of humanity, and whether or not Artificial Intelligence possess any sort of personhood. The Party feels like something out of <em>1984</em>, closely monitoring its members' loyalty to the cause. As South questions the Party's true intentions, he also begins to wonder where he belongs in the world..

One of the positive aspects of the book is that it doesn't lean too heavily on either the science fiction or the dystopian elements, instead focusing more on character development and exploring the major themes of both genres.
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When The Sparrow Falls is a stunning debut featuring a futuristic utopian nightmare that feels plucked from history.

Agent Nikolai South knows better than to trust anyone in the Caspian Republic, including himself. Touted as the last sanctuary for humanity in a world run by artificial intelligence, the Republic is strict in keeping technology out. If you break the laws, your life is forfeit.

When a journalist and staunch supporter of the Party is killed, South is reassigned immediately. The journalist was a “machine” and to avoid an international incident, the Republic is allowing his widow to enter their country and identify his remains. When she looks almost exactly like South’s dead ex-wife, his world is upended. With factions closing around them, South struggles to keep both of them alive. As the ghosts of his past come back to haunt him, he stumbles on a conspiracy that could end the Republic for good. But first he has to survive.

Part spy thriller, part dark dystopian, When The Sparrow Falls is a complex examination of identity, technology, power, and control.

We’re thrown into the Caspian Republic via a political execution. It’s a brutal but effective way to introduce us to this extremely authoritarian society and the people operating within it. Nikolai South does little to hide his weariness and almost indifference to the world in which he lives. There’s a reckless hopelessness to him. He isn’t going to stick his neck out and help anyone, but he isn’t under any illusions over who he is or what he’s expected to do.

We also get one of our only interactions with Paulo Xirau, the journalist and fanatic Party supporter. He doesn’t talk to Nikolai, but how he behaves in the scene tells us everything we need to know about his beliefs and how far Xirau will go in the name of the Party. Until he dies anyway. The juxtaposition between outward appearance and inner secrets is rooted in this opening scene, and really highlights that no matter how much a government strives to control its people, they will always have secrets. And we see these secrets come out in almost every character in one way or another. In this case, we find out that Xirau is in fact a “machine”, artificial intelligence living in a body.

This strikes the core of what the Caspian Republic is. There are supposed to be ways to detect if machines infiltrate their borders. But who would better know the limitations of a technologically regressed society than technology itself? It’s a bitter truth that the things we fear, the things we run from, the things we try to avoid, usually end up being our biggest downfall. In the Caspian Republic, their hatred and determination to keep technology out means they are almost helpless when it comes to actually protecting themselves from it. Of course, the real irony lies in the fact that the governing artificial intelligence entities have stronger ethics than the humans, and simply stay away because it’s the right thing to do. It’s a brilliant way to highlight hate and how it diminishes and stagnates us so entirely.

The next question is why would a machine want to live in a society that was disgusted by his very existence? Again, Sharpson walks us through this complex web of identity in the context of artificial intelligence related ethics. South may not be a fanatic, but he can’t help but be shaped by the society he lives in. Except when Lily, Xirau’s widow, shows up his biases are both brought to light and challenged. But it’s in Xirau that we get the most interesting exploration of identity and belonging. He obviously knew how to stay undetected but fought fervently to defend its laws and beliefs against technology.

In every way, South and Xirau are opposites. It’s a beautiful contrast that really grapples the contradictory nature of humanity. Xirau doesn’t physically belong but believes he should. And South belongs without believing in anything. They both hide who they truly are for fear of the consequences, keeping secrets and living half a life in many ways. Their struggle is so similar even though their goals oppose each other. Once AI turns intelligent and aware, what stops it from being human? Sharpson presents these questions to the reader, opening the door for thoughtful discussion without offering an answer. He presents us with situations rife with potential consequences for us to consider, resulting in a story that stays long after the cover is closed.

While the book is set far in the future, the Caspian Republic is so opposed to technology, shunning even cell phones, that it gives the entire country a very Soviet era meets North Korea vibe. Combine that with government issued housing, warring secret police, and the sense that your neighbour can murder you with one word to the right authority, and it cements the feeling even more. Take out the artificial intelligence running the world and the book almost feels like historical fiction. Or even more frightening, a realistic near future. However, Sharpson makes sure that while we very much are rooted in the backwards country, we never forget all the ways the world has advanced around it.

Each chapter opens with various snippets and clips from newsworthy events around the globe. This helps orient us in the world, while showing all the ways the Caspian Republic lacks. But we also get glimpses into the past, letting us see how this rigid autocracy came to be in the first place. Even the way Lily identifies Xirau’s body gives us a clever reminder that this world is very different from our own.

When The Sparrow Falls is a slow-burn novel that takes threads we didn’t even know we were holding and pulls them together as we careen towards a shocking end. This is a novel fans will want to read again, picking up the subtle clues overlooked the first time. The political commentary is timely but timeless. As the world divides around us in real time, it’s easy to see alarming similarities in leaders and policies taking shape. The story is layered and nuanced, filled with complicated characters that opens conversations rooted in our past, present, and future. It’s a brilliant mirror to our reality packaged in a fast-paced sci-fi plot.
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Looking for a new dystopian science fiction novel to dive into? Check out Neil Sharpson's When the Sparrow Falls.

Agent Nikolai South has learned two important rules during his time in the Caspian Republic. Rule number one: trust no one. Rule number two: work just hard enough to avoid making enemies, but not too hard.

South's life is about to get thrown into a pit of turmoil, as he's set to guard the first machine ever allowed into the country. Only... there's something personal about this case, as the widow looks far too much like his late wife for comfort.

"Power is a poison."

When the Sparrow Falls is a fascinating specimen to come from the world of science fiction. Throw in the dystopian undercurrent, and you've got something really compelling and borderline haunting about the whole thing.

In other words: I really enjoyed When the Sparrow Falls. The world is a particular blend that I love - tech and dystopian themes that are hard to find done right. Yet the balance here is perfect, and it didn't distract from South's story in the least.

If anything, it enhanced it, as his story goes from being that of a typical agent to something so much more personal. I was expecting that twist (thanks to the book's description), and yet I was still blown away by what followed.
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<i>*I received an eARC via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.*</i>

I finished this book over a week ago and still don't really know how to put into words my feelings towards it. In this dystopian world, humans are dying out and the only place left for them in a world ruled by AI is the Caspian Republic, where Agent Nikolai South lives or is trying to live because life in the Caspian Republic is not all that grand, but hey at least they aren't machines?

The mystery itself is quite thrilling and I loved the twisty ride, but I most enjoyed learning about the world, though Nikolai piecing together his history of the world does play into the central mystery of the story. And I loved Nikolai as a protagonist. He is someone who is very much trying to keep his head down and survive without getting anyone's attention and he has such a sharp inner monologue. His commentary about himself and his country were some of my favorite parts of the book. 

My one complaint (if you can call it that) is the jarring shift of the last 10% or so of the book. The mystery plot wraps up but then we get to see the fallout of the climax and we get to see even more of the unreliable narrator and while those are both things I usually love, the tonal shift really threw me off.

Overall, I had a lot of fun reading this book and it is definitely one that will stick with me. And for once I actually agree with the publisher comps- this felt very reminiscent of Philip K. Dick, John le Carré, and Kurt Vonnegut.
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Security Agent Nikolai South starts his narrative with an execution. He witnesses the hanging of a man, a rare occurrence in the Caspian Republic. Afterward, South is assigned to chaperone the man’s wife. But the widow Lily is a machine, one that resembles South’s late wife. Until now, South has kept to himself, going by the rules in this supposedly AI-free sanctuary. These new series of events in his life will propel him to unearth a conspiracy that, if revealed, could shatter the Caspian Republic.

Sharpson’s fluid prose reads like a lullaby, albeit one that keeps you awake. He narrows in on the small but significant details like the remains of someone’s breakfast on their beard, or how a crowd looks like unwashed potatoes. Sharpson breathes life into this future and South’s narrative arc. Not only are epigraphs included at the start of every chapter, providing glimpses of how this future had manifested over time, but atmospheric and vivid details paint a poignant portrait of the Caspian Republic and its citizens. Even when the story dwells on this world’s history, Sharpson manages to compel his audience through his attention to detail.

When the Sparrow Falls navigates themes of AI consciousness and human supremacy. The Republic executed Lily’s husband because he was found out to be an AI, and Lily is now also a target for the same reason. Nikolai and Lily’s character dynamics remind me of the 2002 film Solaris and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick. A personal story about memory and autonomy, When the Sparrow Falls offers a vision of a human future.
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First, read this:
<blockquote>Nominally, the currency of the Caspian Republic is the moneta, but in truth the coin of the nation was fear. Whoever could inspire fear was rich, whoever lived in fear was poor.
–and–
For a writer's work to be circulated amongst the upper levels of the party was usually the precursor to them coming down with a rather permanent case of writer's block, but not this time. {He} was offered a position in The Truth (then viewed as a rather out of touch and elitist organ), and asked to bring his rough, authentic, working-class voice to the paper's readers, who were left with nothing to do but wonder what they had done to deserve it.</blockquote>
You know already where you are. You'd be stupid or frankly insentient if you didn't recognize the various totalitarian régimes of our present century. Here's what you don't know in the first few chapters of this extraordinarily exciting tale: You will not be leaving the Caspian Republic until events have reached their logical limits. Until then, settle in and surrender your schedule and your other plans.

I would love to spoil the bejabbers out of this read. It is almost painful not to. I want someone to kvell over the ending with; I want someone to be full of the rat's-nest of emotions with me...and not one soul I know can be!

I understand the feelings expressed at the ending of the book so very much better now.

When you send your request in to the bookery of your choice for this story, I think you should know that the author's purpose in writing it was to rob you of any sense of actual control over your life and the world around you. But it will, in fact, be okay. I can't tell you why but let's just say Epicurus's famous formulation of the Problem of Evil:
<blockquote>“Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?”</blockquote>
Well-trodden tracks lead through this thicket. The response from the god-addled is, "She has Her Reasons, which Reason knoweth not," or something similar to that. In fact the story contains that very argument, put in the mouth of a deeply important figure. (It is only resolvable for the goddists by their huffy assumption that you, o skeptic, are nowhere near as smart as you think you are; and for the bare-faced atheists by using the same argument in reverse.) But what if there *is* a solution....
<blockquote>It was the face beneath mine on the beach when she had been pulled from the ocean and my breath had not been enough.</blockquote>
What, indeed.

Spending a day immersed in the Caspian Republic is a pleasure I'm deeply glad to inform you is exactly what this rather somber, for me at least, holiday required. I needed morally complex characters, ones whose simplest expressions of self are free of embarrassing innocence and unmarred by mawkish candor. I needed to be with my fellow hideously betrayed and painfully reassembled, then betrayed again...and again...and again...bitter, disappointed, unable to imagine what trust would even look like, romantics. They teem in the totalitarian terrors of the Caspian Republic. I needed to feel that my brain's energy was fully and unremittingly drawn down to understand the convolutions of the story's moral landscape.
<blockquote>"Everyone's soul is unique...{a}nd just as your body is built with the protein and calcium and iron you consume every day, your soul is built with words. The words you read, and the words you hear. The soul consumes words, and then it expresses itself through them in a way that is unique to that soul."</blockquote>
Success!

Love will always fuck you up; and the ways in which love fucks you up are truly epic in this story. Thee and me, fellow QUILTBAGgers, are presented on these pages as people of complexity and subtlety. There's really no sex of any sort; it's alluded to and it's very much part of the proceedings, but nobody gets down to business. In exchange, lesbians' love is utterly unremarkable. Men's love is less present; but it does come, when it shows up, as a moment of bathos and facetious secretiveness ("...what did he do?" <I>Your husband, unless I completely misread the subtext,</i> isn't particularly respectful from a cishet man no matter that it's amusingly phrased). Oh well...can't really expect otherwise, given the two men involved. There was absolutely no way on Earth I'd've picked those guys out as my fellows, gotta hand that to Author Sharpson!

So half-a-star gone for the three w-bombs dropped on my innocent, unsuspecting head; another half-star for being sniggeringly dismissive of the only gay male couple in the entire book.

But leaving the read, the ending, well...that has to put some luster back on the read...it's a delight, if a marred and flawed delight, of a read. It gives a reader a rare treat: Reading about grown people, the adult end of the room, is a rapturous and infrequently encountered pleasure in the YA-heavy lists of SF/F publishers. A novel of ideas, one that examines the cracks and the broken places in Love and Trust, one that asks you to spend more than just the usual amount of energy on the read deserves a warm and delighted welcome, louder and stronger for the fact that it's the first...hopefully in a long line.

But seriously. No more w-verbing. It's gross.
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Razor-sharp and engaging speculative fiction, that was at times terrifying. The parallels that can be drawn to reality are somewhat chilling. It took me about 30-40 pages to catch on to the pace of the book, but I ultimately enjoyed it and found it to be very approachable. I do recommend if you enjoy science fiction or speculative fiction.
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Cold War-style paranoia meets AI futurism in a truly delightful first novel of fine-tuned speculative fiction.. The author's world-weary narrator and accidental protagonist might have been drafted by Le Carré or Chandler for the SF thriller they never wrote.. Eagerly awaiting Sharpson's next novel!
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This brilliant novel is as if you took the best parts of Blade Runner and Gorky Park and Vertigo and mashed them all together with the most tender empathy and an eye to not only singularity but also the meaning of godhood. My only complaint with this book is that I'd freaking love it if the showdown between Natasha and Sally had been expanded into an entire book of its own instead of being limited to a chapter and a half. I do hope Neil Sharpson considers doing that: even tho readers of this book will know how it ends, I think it would still be an utterly fascinating read, especially if it's written with the same verve and heart as this book was.

When The Sparrow Falls is the story of State Security Agent Nikolai South, a man whose career and involvement in Party politics has been so perfunctory as to be almost suspicious in a country where ambition and paranoia are the norm. South lives in the Caspian Republic, the last bastion of unadulterated humanity, free of the corrupting influence of Artificial Intelligence. AI not only advises the rest of the world's governments but also offers people an extension on their lifespans, allowing their personalities to be uploaded from their dying bodies into dataspace, then downloaded from dataspace into clone bodies. The Caspian Republic was formed on a revulsion at the idea of this, but the passing decades have moved it from an enclave of dreamers and philosophers (who casually ignore the genocide that allowed them to set up their nation) to a police state whose people are afraid to speak aloud their hopes and dreams.

When South is summoned to meet the acting head of State Security, he immediately fears that one of his indiscretions -- warning a witness to hide before the thugs of Party Security can find him, not reporting graffiti or other petty crimes, being a less than enthusiastic Party member -- is going to cost him his freedom, if not his life. Instead, Deputy Director Augusta Niemann has a job for him. The recent death of firebrand journalist Paulo Xirao was shocking less for how it happened than for the revelation that Xirao, whose stock in trade was unimaginative if fervent polemics against technology, was actually an AI himself, with registered citizenships in both America and Europe. His widow Lily wants to fly into the Caspian Republic to identify him. Feeling pressure from the outside world, Niemann is inclined to allow it.

Ofc, Lily will need a babysitter, which is where South comes in. The last thing South expects, however, is for Lily to bear an uncanny resemblance to his late wife Olesya. Soon, South is plunged into a disorienting game of trying to protect Lily from people hostile to any AI setting foot in Caspian Territory, while striving to uphold the ideals of a Republic he still believes in, even if the reality has proven bitterly disappointing.

I rather expected to enjoy the heady ideas and fast-paced thrills and dark humor of this exploration of both AI and authoritarianism, but I did not expect to be crying my eyes out at the end, especially at old Niko's advice for Lily's stories. The amount of love for humanity is overwhelming in the best possible way, as Mr Sharpson considers not only the technological possibilities available to us but also the ways in which we need to remember what truly matters. And, oh boy, is this one of the most politically astute novels I've read in, perhaps, ever! Mr Sharpson ably dissects the claims for and counterclaims against a nation founded on what's essentially a principle of exclusion, while subtly critiquing real world atrocities throughout history. For being a science fiction novel, it also features one of the best fictional portraits of a politician who is hero and villain both. That this wildly intelligent sci-fi thriller is, on top of everything else, a debut novel is a truly impressive feat. 

I am 100% nominating this for next year's Hugos.

When The Sparrow Falls by Neil Sharpson was published today June 29 2021 by tordotcom and is available from all good booksellers, including <a href="https://bookshop.org/a/15382/9781250784216">Bookshop!</a>
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I DNFed this book at 25%. It was marketed as a sci-fi/dystopian about a world of that is run by artificial intelligence, uploading your consciousness into the machine, and so forth. However those things aren’t allowed in the Caspian Republic. This country is basically Cold War Soviet Union, with a healthy dose of Bolshevik Lenin-era propaganda. It reads as a espionage thriller, and that is not something I find enjoyable at all.
Giving 3 stars to be fair since I didn't finish the book.
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Neil Sharpson's "When the Sparrow Falls" is a thoughtful and well-executed espionage and conspiracy mystery with a sci-fi twist. For the setting, take a Soviet-era satellite state with its complex and security bureaucracy, with a "party" constantly on the lookout for disloyalty including within the separate "state" police apparatus, and set it in a world that is otherwise run by AI-guided and capitalism-fueled democracy. However, your only perspective on the situation is from within the state, paranoid and seemingly besieged by an ever-present threat of embargo and infiltration and dissidence. Enter a political writer, railing eloquently in state publications against the external AI threat, who falls into the party's hands and upon execution is found to be an AI, the very infiltration that the party fears most. Enter the state police detective assigned to investigate the author and his wife, an AI who is invited to visit and claim her husband's effects amid a smuggling scheme, a vaguely secretive cabal of dissenters, a technology that can transfer consciousness into the AI cloud outside those paranoid borders, and the desire for the people trapped inside those borders to escape into blissful oblivion amid promises of everlasting digital life. It's a fascinating juxtaposition of anachronistic Cold War-era paranoid spycraft and post-modern technological self-justification, with a likely unreliable and potentially AI-sympathetic narrator as our guide through a well-plotted tale of deep and complex conspiracy.
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Thank you to NetGalley and TOR for this review copy:

This was a surprisingly excellent book. Great prose, great characters, and a really thoughtful examination of the ramifications of using AIs for so much. Part of it seem a little “tell, don’t show” - but that made sense by the end. 

I definitely will be checking out more of Sharpton’s stuff in the future. Very excited that this is his first book!
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The novel is taught and intense, with hints seeded so stealthily that the big reveals (and, with the twists, there are a few) give a feeling of both surprise and inevitability. ... The post-humanity conceits in the story, and the very grounded dystopia that comes from trying to live in the past, work together to create a sense of hope, that despite the regrets of the past, there is a future. It might be terrible and glorious at once, but it’s there, waiting for us to enter it.
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