You know how sometimes you read the first chapter of a novel and you just know that you’re going to love the whole book?
I had that feeling with Sleeping Giants by Sylvain Neuvel.
Sleeping Giants is a story about a giant alien robot and the people who struggle to piece it together and operate it. There’s Rose Franklin, who as a child fell into the hand of the first piece. There’s Kara Resnik, an Army pilot who joins the team to pilot the robot. There’s Ryan Mitchell, her partner, and Vincent Couture, the linguist brought in to decipher the alien symbols. There’s a psychopathic geneticist, and then there’s the mysterious interviewer.
That’s right. The story is told in a series of interview files, with the occasional newspaper article or other transcribed recording. That particular style can be difficult, but Neuvel handles it very well. It strains the limits of believability in some of the more action-heavy chapters, but it’s very effective on the whole. Generally speaking though, it lends the novel an aura of realism that brings everything closer to home.
And the characters shine through their recorded dialogue. Unlike some of the other books I’ve read recently, the female characters are fully realized with agency of their own, and the male characters are almost tragic. Each is highly unique; you’ll know from their dialogue which character is speaking even without reading whose interview you’re looking at.
The plot is really intriguing, one part science fiction and one part political thriller. It deals with the theme of how to responsibly use power and mixes it with a first contact story of sorts. We get the politics of the U.S. versus Russia versus the Koreas versus an assortment of other governments. And all the while, you experience the joy of scientific discovery as the team finds all the pieces, discovers how to turn the robot on, and begins meddling with the controls.
Neuvel handles it all equally well. He socks you in the stomach several times with brutal, horrifying screw-ups – and the book is all the more realistic for those gut-wrenching moments. This is not sunshine and rainbows, and each time you think it’s over, there’s another one coming.
It all moves along quickly due to the nature of the writing style, which doesn’t really allow for boring or unimportant chapters, and before you know it you’ll be through the book and hungry for more.
Sleeping Giants also leaves a lot of questions unanswered, especially around who the interviewer is and around the race who built the robot. We don’t know if we’ll make true first contact, or if a world war will yet break out. Even as it draws to a close, it keeps you hooked and curious.
The epilogue is yet another smack in the face which poses even more questions, and I absolutely cannot WAIT to get my hands on the second book in the series. Kudos to Neuvel on an excellent debut!