Book Review: Only Human by Sylvain Neuvel
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 3.5 of 5 stars
Genre: Science Fiction
Series: Book 3 of Themis Files
Publisher: Del Rey (May 1, 2018)
Length: 336 pages
What a crazy ride it’s been. Only Human is the third book of the Themis Files trilogy, bringing an end to a saga that first began in Sleeping Giants, where as a child, protagonist Rose Franklin quite literally stumbled upon a discovery of a lifetime. While exploring the woods near her home in Deadwood, South Dakota, she accidentally fell into a square hole in the ground containing what was later identified as the hand of a giant metal robot. Fast forward many years, and the world has now become a very different place, with humanity hovering on the brink of war against an unstoppable alien threat. A lot has clearly happened, and if you’re not caught up on the series yet, be aware that this review will contain plot details from the first two books.
First of all, it has been nine years since the end of the second volume, Waking Gods, which left us with one hell of cliffhanger as the giant robot Themis (carrying Rose Franklin, Vincent Couture, his 10-year-old daughter Eva, and General Eugene Govender inside at the time) was suddenly and inexplicably transported to another world. In Only Human, we find out exactly where they went, as well as what exactly happened in the intervening years.
Once again, the story is presented as a collection of mostly journal entries, transcribed interviews or recordings, letters and other forms of personal communication, etc. so by now the format feels very familiar. The greatest challenge the author had to overcome in this book, however, was the establishing of two timelines—one taking in the present, the other filling in the events of the last nine years—and there’s even the problem of a language barrier to consider this time. The book begins with the return of Rose, Vincent, Eva, and a fourth mysterious passenger, as Themis suddenly shows up again on Earth following its almost decade-long disappearance. Many of us had guesses as to where Themis ended up, I think, and sure enough, we soon get confirmation that the characters had been transported the giant robot’s homeworld, Esat Ekt.
As you would imagine though, spending nine years anywhere, let alone on an alien planet, would be enough to change anyone. Upon their return, both Rose and Vincent are shocked at what life has become on Earth, and Eva, now nineteen years old and who had spent most of her formative years living among the Ekt, is having a particularly hard time adjusting. They’re also being detained by the Russian government (because Themis reappeared in Russian territory), who are pressuring them to give up all the deets: Are the aliens coming back? Do they still want war with Earth? How do we fight them?
Except, of course, the aliens aren’t at all what we’ve been led to believe. They’re actually kind of a mess. In some ways, they’re even more clueless than humans, despite being lightyears ahead of us in technology. It made this somewhat of a dreary read because I spent most of it feeling pissed off at everyone, Ekt and human alike. The universe is apparently full of jerks. And if an advanced alien race capable of creating gargantuan robots that can disintegrate mountains in an eyeblink can’t even get it together, then what chance do we have? I also found myself annoyed with the characters, many of whom came across as sanctimonious, selfish, and careless. In a world where conditions have devolved so far, pitting countryman against countryman, friend against friend, daughter against father…at one point I asked myself if I would even care how this ended. It was just too depressing.
Thankfully, the plot took a turn for the better in the second half. It made me see how things were meant to fit together. I now understand that much of the conflict was meant to set up the events of the last hundred pages or so, in order to have the ending feel that much more satisfying and emotionally impactful.
That said, there were still a few things I wished this final novel did differently. For one, I wanted a lot more about the aliens. The limited information we received about the Ekt was sorely disappointing, considering our protagonists were on their planet and stayed among them for nine whopping years. Also, there were a couple downsides to the epistolary format that I confess still sort of bug me even after three books. It’s just hard to buy into the whole oral dictation angle when so many scenes in the story that are not conducive to carrying a recorder around, conveniently capturing all our characters’ conversations about their thoughts and reporting exactly what they are doing. There are still plenty of these awkward moments, with the trade-off being realism and immersion.
I don’t want to sound too negative, however. I did have a lot of fun with this book—with all three books, in fact. Given the complex nature of this series, Sylvain Neuvel had his work cut out for him, and that’s on top of dealing with obstacles that challenge all new authors. A few minor hiccups notwithstanding, I have to say he managed to pull off his debut trilogy marvelously, sparking imaginations and offering action-packed entertainment along the way. The Themis Files is a masterful storytelling experience, one I will not soon forget.