Sleeping Giants by Sylvain Neuvel is the first novel in the Themis Files series. Seemingly at random, a mysterious object of massive scale is found in a sinkhole in South Dakota after a young girl crashes her bike into it. Rescue crews working to get her out are baffled by the fact that she rests in a giant metal hand. Seventeen years later, the hand’s purpose and origins are still a complete mystery. Some can’t let secrets lie, however, and Dr. Rose Franklin, the girl who first stumbled upon the thing, is now a physicist who leads a top-secret team determined to uncover the truth. The work is challenging, but the object’s hidden power is greater than they could have imagined. As they get closer to unlocking its secrets, it becomes impossible to keep such a thing hidden from the world, which may not be ready for it.
It doesn’t take much to get me to read a book sometimes; all I knew about this novel going in was that it was about giant robots in some way and that it was written in an atypical format. Each chapter is a transcript of audio debriefing/interviews, with journal entries and reports sprinkled throughout. I thought that perhaps this would make for a faster reading experience, as this approach can be a little more limiting than standard prose, but the novel was actually surprisingly deep and rich with its characters, despite the story largely being conveyed by dialogue, and my experience was akin to that of any other traditionally written novel.
I could see a version of this story written in a more sterile way with regard to its characters, transcribing for the reader a series of events with recognizable names and quirks tied to them but ultimately concerned with answering questions pertaining to what, where, and how. World War Z by Max Brooks comes to mind for me, a great book I remember fondly but not for its characters. There’s no denying that the format does keep the characters a little more distant in this novel too, but Neuvel manages to give them dimension thanks in no small part to a nameless character whose presence slowly grows into something more immense yet enigmatic as the story progresses.
This character is the interviewer, who works on behalf of the American government to ensure that the project continues to make progress. He pushes each interview, his questions at first abrupt and to the point but extracting the information he desires from his subjects in a way their lays who they are bare, not just for the interviewer’s record but the reader as well. It was really clever in its simplicity, presenting a context that made more expository information feel surprisingly natural, as he insists upon people revealing their vulnerabilities in a credible way.
What I liked best about this figure is that I felt like I got to know him really well too, as more than just bold text contrasted with the rest, yet there’s very little I can actually say about him. Even his very nature is ambiguous, as I got the impression he genuinely cares and has humanity, yet I cannot help but wonder how much of what he does is more dubiously orchestrated or performative. As much as I have grown attached to the richer, more distinct characters in the narrative, seeing what will be revealed about the interviewer in subsequent novels has me the most hooked.
The novel itself strikes a wonderful balance, taking a rather pulpy idea normally found in escapist stories and playing it very straight. The enormity of the task of just uncovering the pieces to this giant alien robot is really felt in the early stages of the book, and the difficulties experts would actually face in trying to decipher the use of such a thing are at the forefront of the tension in the story, sometimes with fatal results, rather than them being just hurdles to pass on the way to exciting action. The geopolitical implications of such a powerful artifact abound as well, demonstrating the earth-shattering consequences such a discovery would have on human civilization. At it’s heart, however, there’s still an enjoyable amount of gleefulness about the subject matter too; you can just tell that Neuvel loves the idea of piloting big robots, despite all the real-world hurdles that necessarily stand in the way of the fun of it.
Sleeping Giants was an excellent introduction into a series I’m excited to continue reading. I wasn’t sure if the story would escalate into all-out, over-the-top action by the end, and I’m happy with how things turned out. The story wasn’t kept confined to laboratories and interviews for the duration, with some sequences surprisingly effective given the format, but Neuvel still exercised restraint in service of the story. Other than the format by its nature keeping me a little more at a distance from the characters than I would prefer, I don’t really have a bad thing to say about this book. I highly recommend it.
My Rating: 4.5 out of 5