Book Review: Sleeping Giants by Sylvain Neuvel

It’s easy to see why Sylvain Neuvel’s debut novel, Sleeping Giants, is one of the most talked about sci-fi novels of the year. It’s got a gorgeous cover, a great (in very inaccurate) mash-up description (World War Z meets The Martian? Not really.) to sell copies, and it’s compulsively readable from page one. It’s also a book that can be read as seriously or unseriously as you like; on its surface, Sleeping Giants is a blockbuster thriller that (judging from its recently being optioned for film) would be right at home at a movie theater in June, but there’s a good amount of depth to it as well if one cares to look. In short, it’s an excellently written middle brow novel that defies strict genre classification. Between its broad appeal and heavy advance promotion (it’s been on NetGalley since before Christmas, I believe), Sleeping Giants is well-positioned to be one of the most widely read sci-fi novels of 2016. Even better, it’s a novel that deserves to be widely read. Because it’s really, really good.

The story opens with a young girl falling into a hole in Deadwood, South Dakota. Inside the hole is a giant, glowing turquoise hand, which is quickly whisked away and the whole incident hushed up. Seventeen years later, the girl, now Dr. Rose Franklin, finds herself in charge of a team overseeing the search for the rest of the pieces and trying to figure out how to make the ancient alien machine work. In a way, this description—basically what is on the cover of the book—is misleading. Rose is not the main character as it implies, though she does have a vital part to play in the narrative. In some ways this is a little disappointing, as I was expecting a book about a badass lady scientist, but the lack of focus on Rose is more than made up for by the other main female character, pilot Kara Resnik, who is wonderful. That said, all the characters were pretty good, even linguist Victor Couture, who is a pretty obvious semi-self-insert on the part of the author but tends to steal every scene he’s in.

I have been a fan for many years of the epistolary novel, and I’m glad to see that it’s been coming back in recent years. Sleeping Giants is another one to add to the pile. Told primarily in the form of transcripts of interviews between various characters and an unnamed interviewer, Sleeping Giants is consistently entertaining and never once boring. Early in the novel, Neuvel does lapse into a more generic prose style that doesn’t feel as conversational as it ought to, given the format, but by about a quarter of the way in you can clearly see each character’s voice and personality emerging and by the end of the book they feel like old friends. It’s not perfectly executed, but the later finesse makes up for earlier stumbles, and the novel is overall nicely structured. Each character has a well-defined arc, and Neuvel does an excellent job of setting up the story, breaking things, and then pulling it all together for a satisfying ending to this first installment of his series.

Interestingly, the most compelling character turns out to be the unnamed interviewer. He doesn’t get a character arc in the same way that Kara and Vincent do, but the slow revelation of his character is fascinating. I wasn’t, at first, totally sold on him as a character—a shady figure outside the government who has, well, not a heart of gold, but some kind of conscience—but by the end of the book I was totally engaged in his story. And it is the interviewer’s story, at least as much as it’s the story of Kara or Vincent or Rose. Because the interviewer is the only constant character and the collected files that make up the book seem to be the part of the interviewer’s records, it’s the interviewer who is ultimately in control of the narrative that we’re exposed to as we read. This may not matter for a surface reading of the text, in which case it’s totally fair to just accept that the interviewer is what he seems to be, but I feel as if we could endlessly debate the veracity of the collected documents that make up the story, the motives of the interviewer, and the degree to which he is or ought not be considered a reliable narrator.

Sleeping Giants isn’t going to be one of the technically “best” novels of the year, in spite of all its hype. It’s good, and it’s highly enjoyable, but it’s not great literature. Still, it’s a solid debut for Sylvain Neuvel and a nice start to the Themis Files (a trilogy, I guess?). I don’t think this is going to be a book with much reread value, but I’m absolutely looking forward to the next installment of the series.

This review is based upon a copy of the book received through NetGalley.

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