Book Review: Sleeping Giants by Sylvain Neuvel
A review copy was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 3.5 of 5 stars
Genre: Science Fiction
Series: Book 1 of Themis Files
Publisher: Del Rey (April 26, 2016)
Length: 320 pages
The concept behind Sleeping Giants is amazing. I also love epistolary novels. But all the same, I wavered for days after finishing this book, pondering how I should phrase my review. On the one hand, I had a fantastic time reading it, a fact made even more obvious by the fact that I devoured all 300-ish pages in a little more than a day. Still, for all its wonderful themes and ideas, the novel is inherently flawed in several ways, and as much as I admired the format, I also thought it greatly limited the story in what it wanted to accomplish.
To call its premise awesome and unique though, is a huge understatement. Say what you will about Sleeping Giants, but you can’t deny the insane amount of thought and imagination that went into it. The mystery presented by its opening chapter is irresistible by itself, beginning with something as innocuous as a young girl riding her new bike near the woods in her home town of Deadwood, South Dakota. One moment, Rose Franklin is having a great time pedaling through the forest, and the next, she’s falling into a large square hole in the ground that wasn’t there before. When the rescuers come to get her out, they peer down to see an incredible sight: little Rose, lying cupped in the palm of a giant hand made of a strange metal shot with glowing turquoise light.
Scientists and researchers are baffled by the discovery, which is dated to be thousands of years old—far older than it should be. Despite efforts to unlock its secrets, not much progress is made, and the hand is stored away, its mysteries shelved for the next seventeen years.
But now, interest is stirring again. Dr. Rose Franklin, the very same girl who “found” the hand all those years ago, has grown up and become a brilliant physicist. In a strange twist of fate, she is assigned as the lead scientist to direct a top secret team to try and once more study the giant artifact, with much greater resources and technology at her disposal. Overseeing this entire project is a nameless benefactor with seemingly bottomless pockets and friends in high places. Almost the entire story is told through interviews with this mysterious man as he collects progress reports from Dr. Franklin and her colleagues, even though it’s clear he already knows a lot more than he’s letting on.
For those who go into Sleeping Giants without knowing about the format, the experience can be decidedly jarring. It was distracting even for me, and I knew full well beforehand that the entire book was going to be made up of interview transcripts, journal entries, and other documents. Part of this is due to my high expectations for this type of novel; I’ve read a lot of them in the last few years and I realize it’s a format that’s hard to pull off, but when it works, it can really enhance the atmosphere and impact of a story. There are many challenges of course, and out of all the epistolary-style books I’ve read, only a few have come close to overcoming them. Mainly, I think this format creates a huge distancing effect between the reader and the people in the story. Because you can only hear what they say and not know their thoughts and feelings, you sacrifice a lot of the intimacy and personal connection with the main characters. In Sleeping Giants, I found this to be the main issue, because I simply did not feel emotionally invested enough in our mystery interrogator, Dr. Rose Franklin, Kara, Ryan, Vincent, or any of the other major players to care all that much about their ultimate fates.
The second issue relates to how much information a story needs to convey. The interview format is not very well suited to this, especially when a lot of description (and scientific detail) is involved. You end up with characters going on huge monologues loaded with scientific jargon, making the book’s conversations feel forced and unnatural, which to me is kind of defeating the point of the interview structure in the first place. The info dumping is even more awkward when it’s in the form of an oral report or diary entry, so what you have essentially is a character going, “I’m doing this, now I’m doing that, and okay, now I’m going to shoot these three bad guys in the face…oh, how I wish you could see all this!” Despite attempts to make the dialogue sound more organic, some of the action sequences read more like a farce, killing any kind of mood intended.
Still, I don’t want to make it sound like I didn’t enjoy this novel, because I did. I loved the story, despite my skepticism that this format was the best way to tell it. The main plotline is engaging and addictive, and the term “unputdownable” comes to mind. The first half of the book, with its mysteries and puzzles, was the hook that sucked me in. The second half, where we start to get into the meat of the story, is a lot more complex and suspenseful, exploring the ramifications of Dr. Franklin’s discovery as well as its impact on global politics and humanity’s place in the universe. Just think of the significant ways something like this can change our world and affect everything else we do in the future. Pardon the pun, but…this is big.
So, should you read Sleeping Giants? Well, if its premise sounds awesome to you, then yes, for all that is good and holy, yes, yes, YES. If unconventional styles of storytelling aren’t your bag though, you might want to be approach this one with caution. I personally find the interview/oral diary format restricting for THIS particular story, though I also admit to being a reader with finicky tastes when it comes to epistolary novels. If you love a great tale though, and don’t care what shape or form it takes, then I would recommend this one heartily. Sylvain Neuvel’s imaginative debut has captured my full attention, and I’m excited to see what the sequel will bring.