When the Sparrow Falls by Neil Sharpson (Review)

Part cyberpunk dystopia, part Cold War spy thriller, Neil Sharpson’s new novel is a fascinating read.
When the Sparrow Falls - Neil Sharpson

It’s the 23rd century and artificial intelligence has conquered the world; most of humanity’s affairs are essentially ruled by the Triumvirate, a trio of godlike AIs. Virtual existence is also commonplace, with people casting off this mortal coil to live in a digital paradise where death and sickness are no more. But there still exist some true humans in the world, humans who’ve thrown off AI’s shackles and refuse to give in to the false promises of virtual reality. And the Caspian Republic is their home.

Unfortunately, the Caspian Republic is far from an idealistic paradise. It’s bad enough that the Republic’s citizens live in squalor due to embargoes and threat of war from the Triumvirate. But they’re also ruled by a totalitarian regime that resembles the worst Cold War-era nightmares, replete with Kafka-esque bureaucracies and secret police agencies battling each other to see who can be the most ruthless.

Nikolai South is an agent for State Security, though he’s far from ruthless. He’s a troubled man, haunted by the past and in perpetual mourning for his dead wife. He does his job but mostly, he just wants to keep his head down, stay out of trouble, and make it through another day. But those humble plans are thrown into disarray when he’s given a strange mission.

The ruling party’s chief propagandist is dead, and worse, has been revealed to be an AI himself — an uncomfortable fact that threatens the party’s reputation. South must escort the AI’s widow (herself an AI) so she can reclaim her husband’s remains, all while navigating the Republic’s treacherous bureaucracy and keeping her safe from rival agents. But South’s already complex mission gets even more complicated when the AI’s widow bears a resemblance to his wife and he begins dredging up secrets that could bring down the Republic.

I knew nothing about Neil Sharpson’s When the Sparrow Falls before picking it off the library shelf on a whim, but I devoured it in two days thanks to its fascinating concept and world.

Part cyberpunk dystopia à la Blade Runner and part Cold War spy thriller à la James Bond, with some Matrix-y philosophizing and theologizing thrown in for good measure, When the Sparrow Falls creates an evocative, believable world with its own tragic sense of history and place. And though it weaves together a lot of themes and ideas — the pros and cons of AI and virtual reality, the desire for freedom in the face of tyranny, how even the noblest of ideas can be perverted by human cruelty and selfishness, various philosophical paradoxes — When the Sparrow Falls never feels bloated.

Much of that comes from the character of Nikolai South, a bedraggled and beaten down man torn between his loyalty to ideals that his own officials abandoned long ago, and his disgust at what those same ideals have wrought in his beloved homeland. He’s conflicted, and those conflicts are what make him so human — and so sympathetic to the reader, especially when we meet his fellow agents and superiors. In the Caspian Republic, every one has an agenda, and part of the pleasure of reading When the Sparrow Falls is seeing how South tries to navigate and unravel those agendas before they can do him in.

Given its themes and conflicted character, When the Sparrow Falls could easily be a grim read and nothing more (and make no mistake, it is grim in places). But in addition to all of the above, Sharpson writes with a dark humor. In addition to eliciting a few chuckles, that helps to further sell the reality of the novel’s world, i.e., it seems very likely that one would have to adopt some gallows humor in order to survive in a nightmarish totalitarian regime.

When the Sparrow Falls is a fascinating and enjoyable novel that skirts the edge of several genres that I enjoy, and highlights only their best aspects. And it does so with some impressive world-building that comes to life via Sharpson’s efficient prose. Suffice to say, I’ll be looking out for his next title. In the meantime, though, I strongly recommend When the Sparrow Falls to anyone looking for a unique cross-genre work.