Review: Sleeping Giants by Sylvain Neuvel

I’ve had my eye on this one for a while. After a lot of umming and ahhing, I decided that I was interested, just in time to get the first book in hardback. Having finished I’m really glad I did, because it will now match my edition of Waking Gods. I didn’t want to be in the same situation as I was with Becky Chambers’ books, having one in paperback, one in hardback, and no shelf were they can sit side by side.

The series name, Themis Files, should have been a clue to how the narrative is presented. I hadn’t expected it when I picked the book up – possibly because when I’ve flicked through in shops, I was looking at the prologue, which is written in a traditional narrative style. A young girl goes out for a bike ride when the ground gives way beneath her, and she falls into a giant metal hand. She grows up to be Dr Rose Franklin, and seventeen years later is leading the effort to understand what she discovered as a child. The story from there is structured as numbered files – personal journal entries, project logs, and transcripts of conversations between the major players on the project, and an unnamed man from an unnamed secret agency.

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Some of my hesitancy over this book was to do with the tone and type of story it would be – whether it would centre characters or plot, whether it would be too sci-fi for my taste. In fact, I was really impressed by how Neuvel handles all of those elements. This book is really well written and communicates characters with a kind of intimacy I’ve rarely seen done well with this narrative style. The style also demands that the plot be muscular and well-managed.

While some files are present-tense narrations of characters doing things, as though we are hearing their comms as they talk to the rest of the team, most of the book is conversations the mysterious man has with others, and therefore often take place just after something has happened, as he gathers or delivers information to and from others and in doing so also disperses it to the reader. This could easily feel contrived and leave a reader feeling manipulated at major plot points, but it never strayed into that territory for me because the dialogue is so natural.

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While this style of presenting the story didn’t hinder the flow of the book for me, I have been thinking about how my reaction was changed to particular, intensely emotionally charged twists in the plot. I was concerned, because of this, about whether a tone of clinical detachment would creep in to key moments, but this was never actually the case. I found the format very quick to read, but the twists and turns are still intense.

In terms of the style and it’s immediacy, one the one hand most of the files take place in the present tense – we are generally either in the moment or very close after it, hearing people recount what has happened to them. On the other hand, the presence of file numbers implies something else. It’s not the same as being aware of an author feeding information; just the sense that this information has been compiled by someone else in this world, after events. Combined with the regular skipping of file numbers (starting not with File 001 but File 003, 007, 009, 017 and so on…) I’m curious about another hand in the narrative which isn’t accounted for yet. It’s more something which I wondered about after finishing the book, and may well be explained by further installments. When thinking back over it though, I started to wonder who had put these things together as the Themis Files, and who chose to skip the numbers not included.

This book was easy to get into and compelling to read. Even for someone like me who generally balks at sci-fi, I found this incredibly exciting. I was also surprised by how many times I laughed out loud while reading, and the plot has surprises up until the last page. After spending a while unsure of whether I would like this, I would encourage anyone in a similar situation to go for it, because I was in no way disappointed. In fact I was brilliantly surprised.

Neuvel, Sylvain 1

Book Only

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