This is about the best SF I've read in a very long time. I've read amusing SF (like John Barnes' One for Morning Glory) and epic-length SF (like Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars books) but I haven't read a book that captured "sense of wonder" and drew interesting characters quite the way Mary Doria Russell's The Sparrow did. When I finished it (in one sitting), I wanted to get in the car and find Mary's house in Ohio and get her to autograph it.
One problem with the "Star Trek/Star Wars"-ification of SF is that so many writers drop the basic issues that would plague any first contact - acclimating to a new planet/communication/cultural differences. Russell, with her background in anthropology and a keen interest in linguistics, doesn't. Her creation of two types of sentient aliens on the planet work very well - they aren't "just" culturally different, they are different in profound ways.
She also defines her characters so well that the reader understands why the characters act the way they do. While there aren't many female characters in the book, Anne and Sophia are very finely drawn and are fascinating. While black clouds surround Emilio, the Jesuit linguist who returns alive from a disasterous first contact, once the reader gets to the climatic massacre scene, it's clear who incites the aliens and the reader completely understands why.
There are a few minor flaws in the book - the flashbacks skip around unecessarily in the past, and there's a time when Emilio, in obvious agony from his horrific experiences on the planet, should have died and didn't. However, once she evens out her "present story" and her "flashbacks," the story is extremely well-focused.
I generally find the Nebula rule about publication dates and years of eligibility to be stupid, but I think they will work to Russell's benefit in this case. I just hope enough fans read, loved and nominated the book in time for Hugo nominations.
Mary was nominated for the Campbell Award for best new writer and won at Bucconneer.
The sequel to The Sparrow, Children of God, is now out.