When the Sparrow Falls
by Neil Sharpson
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Pub Date 29 Jun 2021 | Archive Date 04 Apr 2022
Macmillan-Tor/Forge, Tor Books
Life in the Caspian Republic has taught Agent Nikolai South two rules. Trust No One. And work just hard enough not to make enemies.
Here, in the last sanctuary for the dying embers of the human race in a world run by artificial intelligence, if you stray from the path—your life is forfeit. But when a Party propagandist is killed—and is discovered as a “machine”—he’s given a new mission: chaperone the widow, Lily, who has arrived to claim her husband’s remains.
But when South sees that she, the first “machine” ever allowed into the country, bears an uncanny resemblance to his late wife, he’s thrown into a maelstrom of betrayal, murder, and conspiracy that may bring down the Republic for good.
WHEN THE SPARROW FALLS illuminates authoritarianism, complicity, and identity in the digital age, in a page turning, darkly-funny, frightening and touching story that recalls Philip K. Dick, John le Carré and Kurt Vonnegut in equal measure.
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Average rating from 48 members
Wow, what a great read! Highly recommend this book. Once I started reading I found it very difficult to put down. I really enjoyed both characters and world building. Will buy a copy for my library so others can enjoy!
Thanks to Your Books and Netgalley for providing an early copy to read.
Holy-hell this is good. Some of the best speculative fiction I've read in ages. At once a grounded political thriller and a wildly imaginative vision of the future, SPARROW puts a magnifying glass up to the political nightmare and corruption that marks our headlines today, whilst offering a glimmer of hope. All within a tightly plotted thriller. A genuinely impressive debut.
If you read The Preserve because the concept sounded interesting, but ultimately were bored, this book is for you. A couple centuries into the future, AI rules the world and "humanists" who want to live an all-organic-human country are relegated to a small area by the Caspian Sea. We follow Nikolai South through this intricate world as he navigates an increasingly complicated mission. Would definitely recommend. Very well done.
Wow, was I impressed by this book. First of all, Sharpson makes us understand the Caspian Republic very quickly. To me, it seemed like a sort of future mashup of East Germany and North Korea. Because the Caspian Republic is the only country in the world that bans artificial intelligence—which by then has been incorporated in humankind everywhere else—it’s essentially a hermit kingdom, a pariah country and a surveillance state. The StaSec (state security), which Nikolai South works for, and ParSec (party security) tightly control all aspects of life in the country and anyone even slightly deviating from rules and orthodoxy is dealt with summarily. Life is harsher by the day, as other countries have blockaded the country, the infrastructure is crumbling and even the country’s leaders are slowly starving.
In addition to reminding me East Germany and North Korea, there are unmistakable reminders of white supremacists, as the Caspian Republic is staunchly philosophically human supremacist. They have their version of “replacement theory” too, and the concomitant hatred and fear of the other.
Anyway, so we start out with impressive world building. Sharpson treats this novel almost as if it’s history, with detailed descriptions of the origins of the Caspian Republic and all the military and political fighting that led to its establishment.
Now on to characters. For a guy who has spent decades trying to ensure he doesn’t garner any attention from anybody, especially ParSec, Nikolai South quickly becomes an indelible character. He has a gently mocking tone in his inner dialog, with his tart observations directed at himself and to his country. Imagine his surprise—and fear—when the StaSec chief orders him to report to her. It turns out that it is precisely because of his decades-long self-effacement that she deems him the perfect person to handle a no-win assignment: be the minder for a foreign visitor who has come to identify her husband Paolo Xirau, a staunch party loyalist who was killed and found in his autopsy to be AI. Of course his widow Lily is AI too, and Nikolai is gobsmacked to find that she looks like his long-dead wife.
Now Nikolai is in jumbled state of mind, wondering exactly what is going on and having great difficulty dealing with the maelstrom of his feelings about Lily Xirau. Not as sharp as he maybe should be, considering that there are forces within the Caspian Republic who want to kill Lily for the great sin of being AI and being in their country at the same time.
This is a real standout read, positing an imaginable future not so many decades away. A future that is dauntingly dystopian in many ways, but full of humanity’s potential when it is open to possibility.
I love well-crafted stories that incorporate AI, and this is no exception. This is one of the best sci-fi thrillers I've read in a while. I don't normally enjoy (and often openly despise) political thrillers, but this is such a unique spin and Nikolai South is such a great character that I couldn't help but to love the book. I will be buying a few copies for my local library system so that everyone can have an opportunity to enjoy this book as much as I did. Thanks to the publisher Tor Books and NetGalley for the opportunity to read and review this excellent ARC.
*I received an e-copy of this book from NetGalley*
The problem with dystopias in science fiction is that they often tend to only exist to sow conflict into the protagonists world; they aren't there for any consistent in-world reason. Often it is just a given that there is a powerful almost all-seeing, almost all-powerful entity that all antagonists work as cogs to perpetuate. But that isn't how real autocracies work and worse, it isn't very interesting.
What makes Sharpson's When the Sparrow Falls so compelling in its worldbuilding is that you fully understand both the values of the Caspian Republic and how actors with differing interests would have to be in conflict given those values. It feels real.
Of course, you will see things here that remind you of a Philip K. Dick novel (only with less drugs and more sensible characters) mixed with Darkness At Noon (only with some hope in the dreariness). But everything works to a purpose.
If you look at my Goodreads history, you won't see a lot of five-star reviews. But I loved When the Sparrow Falls, so it gets my enthusiastic recommendation.
Books turned into movies or TV shows are quite common. But I haven’t seen many books, such as When the Sparrow Falls, adapted from plays. Sharpson adapts his own script into a sci-fi meditation on political extremism, loneliness and technology.
We follow Agent Nikolai South, who is instructed to escort the visiting AI machine Lily Xirau when she arrives in the Caspian Republic to retrieve her deceased husband. Her unprecedented visit sets off political mayhem, as the Caspian Republic is the last bastion of humanity, with no AI allowed within the borders.
While the rest of the world is essentially ruled (or guided, depending on your perspective) by hyper-intelligent artificial intelligence, the Republic is machine-free. Humans are free to make their own decisions, but the Republic mirrors Stalin’s Russia rather than paradise.
As Nikolai gets to know Lily, their conversations challenge his beliefs on what it means to be human. What unfolds is part James Bond, and part Her, and had me almost missing meetings to finish the next chapter.
Yet, the book feels slightly off balance. The height of the tension resolves about 80% of the way through the book. Leaving the last 1/5th more of a quiet settling than an explosion. I liked having more time to see the conclusion of the experimental Republic, but when the cast of characters shifts it became somewhat hard to follow.
Nonetheless, Sharpson writes all of his characters with poise and spunk, no matter how many pages are dedicated to them. The final twist was unexpected, and made me delighted to reflect on the novel as a whole.
I liked Sharpson’s conclusions on technology (a necessary adaption), and political extremism (a strange and deadly hobby). He nailed the balance of doing what is right vs doing what is moral and will have you considering the trade-offs long after you finish the novel.
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