A Colossal Mystery

Sleeping Giants

A review of Sleeping Giants by Sylvain Neuvel

Published on July 8, 2016

The opening catalyst of Sylvain Neuvel’s sci-fi thriller Sleeping Giants is a classic premise of the genre: something is where it shouldn’t – or can’t – be. A giant metal hand is accidentally found by an eleven-year-old girl in the Midwest. The hand appears to be a millennium older than the oldest known civilization in the Americas; the technology needed to create and move the hand barely exists now, let alone then. The best working hypothesis? “We didn’t build this,” says Dr. Rose Franklin, the now- grown eleven-year-old, who is also the head of a team of scientists researching the hand.

It’s a juicy theory, one which Franklin (and Neuvel) explores with the help of a ragtag band of assistants, handpicked for their unique professional skills, if not their interpersonal ones: a take-no-bullshit ex-military pilot with an injured eye, a brilliant and prickly linguist from Montreal, a geneticist with a mysterious background and methods verging on the amoral. As more giant metal body parts turn up, the team must contend with the philosophical and ethical implications of their discovery. Who made this metal colossus, and why did they disassemble and bury it? Why is it being discovered now in particular? What does it do? And why does it have to be so big? After all, no one creates such an outsize thing merely for decoration. As the team begins to realize the extent of the power they hold, and the implications of its origins, they must face their own individual weaknesses and fears, as well as grapple with the desires of various international factions, all of which have an interest in an enormous potential weapon from outer space.

Sleeping Giants
Sylvain Neuvel

Del Rey

The story is told in a fragmented, eclectic style, composed of news reports, journal entries, transcripts, satellite feeds, and, primarily, interviews by an unnamed interlocutor, whose attitude toward his subjects ranges from sardonic to manipulative to outright hostile. This anonymous puppet master is almost as much of a mystery as the metal giant; he seems to know everything about everyone and to have access to levels of power beyond the reach of government and military, but his own background is a cypher. The exchanges between the novel’s de facto narrator and the book’s other characters are generally lively keep the story moving at a good clip. It’s easy to see why plans are already underway for a film adaptation of Sleeping Giants; Neuvel’s novel at its best reads like a snappy screenplay.

Neuvel also does well at technological imagining and writing: the metal giant itself is the clearly drawn centrepiece of the book, a beautiful and beguiling object you can hold in your mind’s eye. Dr. Rose Franklin’s team assembles it with the same delight as a kid putting together a Kinder Surprise toy sans instructions, and the feeling of joyful discovery is every bit the reader’s as well. While later parts of the book get somewhat bogged down in action sequences and developments of international intrigue that aren’t easily carried by the book’s narrative device, for the most part it keeps fast-paced plot turns, big techno-philosophical questions, and compelling character arcs suspended in a fine balance.

Sleeping Giants is the first book in the Themis Files series, and it leaves us with enough questions and loose ends to make the next book pretty enticing. Can immeasurable power bring about peace, or must it inevitably lead to the war to end all wars? I don’t know if Neuvel’s books will give us the answers, but they promise a good ride along
the way. mRb

Anna Leventhal is the author of the short story collection Sweet Affliction, and the onetime publisher of the mRb. After many years in Montreal/Tio'tia:ke, she now lives in Winnipeg, on Treaty 1 territory.



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