Oddly enough, Sylvain Neuvel's Sleeping Giants spent the better part of 2016 on my "Maybe" pile of books to read. I found the premise intriguing and I really wanted to give it a shot due to the fact that the author was also French Canadian. And yet, every time I thought the time had come to finally read it, something came along and I had to postpone doing so. There was always another book, another commitment. Realizing that perhaps it just wasn't meant to be, last fall I put Neuvel's science fiction debut in one of the boxes of novels I donate to local libraries and that was that.
I put it out of my mind, but a few weeks later I received a copy of the trade paperback edition. Thinking that maybe the universe was trying to tell me something, I resolved to give it a go in the near future. Truth be told, I feel bad to have waited this long to do so, for Sleeping Giants would definitely have made my speculative fiction Top 10 of 2016 if I had read it when it was originally released. There is a lot to like about this debut, and it leaves the door open for much more in the upcoming sequels.
Here's the blurb:
A page-turning debut in the tradition of Michael Crichton, World War Z, and The Martian, Sleeping Giants is a thriller fueled by an earthshaking mystery—and a fight to control a gargantuan power. A girl named Rose is riding her new bike near her home in Deadwood, South Dakota, when she falls through the earth. She wakes up at the bottom of a square hole, its walls glowing with intricate carvings. But the firemen who come to save her peer down upon something even stranger: a little girl in the palm of a giant metal hand. Seventeen years later, the mystery of the bizarre artifact remains unsolved—its origins, architects, and purpose unknown. Its carbon dating defies belief; military reports are redacted; theories are floated, then rejected. But some can never stop searching for answers. Rose Franklin is now a highly trained physicist leading a top secret team to crack the hand’s code. And along with her colleagues, she is being interviewed by a nameless interrogator whose power and purview are as enigmatic as the provenance of the relic. What’s clear is that Rose and her compatriots are on the edge of unraveling history’s most perplexing discovery—and figuring out what it portends for humanity. But once the pieces of the puzzle are in place, will the result prove to be an instrument of lasting peace or a weapon of mass destruction?
Quite a few critics have mentioned that this book is reminiscent of Andy Weir's The Martian and Max Brooks' World War Z. It's true, but only as far as the format is concerned. In terms of plot, Sleeping Giants has very little in common with those two bestselling works. The tale is told through a series of recorded interviews and journal entries, in what is a dossier-like format. I must admit I had doubts regarding such a narrative structure at the beginning. But you immediately find out that Sylvain Neuvel adroitly weaves his story through those entries and debriefings, and the reader soon gets used to the unconventional structure. So much so that I don't believe I would have enjoyed the novel as much if not for this unorthodox way to convey the story.
I had a feeling that the characterization would suffer due to this atypical format, but it's the opposite. The interviews and journal entries allow readers to delve into the psyche of every protagonist and get to know them more profoundly than I thought possible. The debriefings and interviews are conducted by a shadowy figure of power whose identity remains unclear throughout the novel. It will be interesting to see if the sequel, Waking Gods, will reveal his identity. I have a feeling that this may make or break the series, given how powerful and high-placed this cold-blooded man appears to be. No matter how influential this man can be, it was nice to see him so thoroughly discomfitted by his encounters with the mysterious Mr. Burns. In addition, his sardonic sense of humor will make you chuckle again and again. The team he puts together to study the artifact is led by Dr. Rose Franklin, who is the heart and soul of the team. Kara Resnik, a badass yet vulnerable helicopter pilot is also recruited. Ryan Mitchell, Kara’s co-pilot, is often compared to Captain America due to his looks, physique, and mindset. Vincent Couture is a brilliant Québécois linguist, perhaps too smart for his own good. Another woman, Alyssa Papantoniou, is a geneticist who believes that Rose might not be the best person to lead such an important project. As additional pieces of the artifact are located across the globe, these characters' lives will come together, for good or ill, for the fate of mankind might be at stake.
Sleeping Giants is a strange sort of hybrid. At its heart, it's a science fiction work that explores larger-than-life concepts and their impacts on the protagonists themselves and the world at large. But it's also a political novel (thriller might not be the right word) that explores the geopolitical conflicts caused by the discovery of pieces of the alien artifact secretely retrieved by Americans on foreign soil. Although science plays a major role in this one, Sleeping Giants is not a hard scifi book. There are just enough scientific details to satisfy purists, yet the narrative is imbued with a sense of wonder that elevates this novel to another level. The realization that we are not alone in the universe and that an ancient civilization is light-years ahead of us technologically will have dramatic repercussions all over the world. I'm not sure I agree with everything Neuvel posited as far as how Earth's powerhouse countries would react to these new revelations, but there's no denying that the author tells a compelling story. We'll have to wait and see if the subsequent volumes will live up to the lofty expectations generated by this debut.
I was afraid that the format would slow down the pace of the novel and I was pleasantly surprised that it wasn't the case. The narrative structure might be unusual, yet the rhythm remains fluid throughout and I finished Sleeping Giants in just a few sittings. The chapters/files are short, feature interviews/debriefings/journal entries that focus on a single protagonist, and move across the timeline at a good clip. The length of each file makes you want to read another one, then another one, and another one, just to find out what happens next. And quickly you reach the end of the book, so captivated were you by the tale and its characters.
When young Rose rode her brand new bike into a sinkhole and a giant alien hand was found at the bottom, little did she know that it would change her life and that of the entire human race in the years to come. The journey to unearth other pieces of this alien artifact is as fascinating as it is thought-provoking. No doubt about it, Sylvain Neuvel wrote an amazing science fiction debut.