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Tuesday, May 10, 2016


Author:  Sylvain Neuvel 
Plot Type:  Science Fiction Mystery/Thriller
Publisher:  Del Rey (4/2016)
     Sleeping Giants (4/2016)
     Waking Gods (4/2017)

This ongoing post was revised and updated on 5/27/2017 to include a review of Waking Gods, the second novel. That review appears first, followed by an overview of the world-building and a review of the first novel, Sleeping Giants.

                         NOVEL 2: Waking Gods                         
     In the gripping sequel to Sleeping Giants, which was hailed by Pierce Brown as “a luminous conspiracy yarn...reminiscent of The Martian and World War Z,” Sylvain Neuvel’s innovative series about human-alien contact takes another giant step forward.

    As a child, Rose Franklin made an astonishing discovery: a giant metallic hand, buried deep within the earth. As an adult, she’s dedicated her brilliant scientific career to solving the mystery that began that fateful day: Why was a titanic robot of unknown origin buried in pieces around the world? Years of investigation have produced intriguing answers—and even more perplexing questions. But the truth is closer than ever before when a second robot, more massive than the first, materializes and lashes out with deadly force.

    Now humankind faces a nightmare invasion scenario made real, as more colossal machines touch down across the globe. But Rose and her team at the Earth Defense Corps refuse to surrender. They can turn the tide if they can unlock the last secrets of an advanced alien technology. The greatest weapon humanity wields is knowledge in a do-or-die battle to inherit the Earth...and maybe even the stars. 

     The story begins ten years after the ending of Sleeping Giants. During that time, Kara Resnick and Vincent Couturenow a happily married couplehave been traveling the world with the giant alien robot named Themis, mostly doing public relations appearances to maintain the perception that Themis is a friendly resource to the Earth and to bolster worldwide support of Earth Defense Corps (EDC), which was founded by the United Nations nine years ago to extract new technologies from Themis "for the benefit of mankind and to protect this planet against extraterrestrial threats." Kara and Vincent are Themis' pilotsthe only two people on Earth who have the ability (and the permission) to operate the robot.

     Life on Earth has been going smoothly until—out of nowhere and without warning—another gigantic robot suddenly appears in the middle of London. At first, the new robot (named Kronos) does nothing but stand motionless in a city park, but when the British government allows fear and impatience to overrule EDC's advice and mounts a full military attack on Kronos, the robot pulses out a wall of white light that literally erases a huge area of London, including 3,600 people and all of the buildings, leaving nothing by a field of dirt. When the EDC sends Themis to try to take down Kronos, Kara and Vincent are successful, but then more huge robots pop up in all of the major cities of the world. These robots begin pulsing out a white fog that kills millions of people. Unexpectedly, small percentages in each city appear to be immune to the gas/fog and survive. The anonymous narrator tortures one of the survivors in a horrific scene that just doesn't ring true, either to the character or to the series as a whole. 

     Back at the EDC, Dr. Rose Franklin, head of the Science Division of the EDC, tries to figure out why the robots have appeared, why they are hostile to all human overtures (both friendly and unfriendly), and how the EDC can end this huge global crisis. Unfortunately, a lot of people die while Rose is scrambling to solve the problem. Eventually, Rose begins to analyze the DNA of both the victims and the survivors of the robots' attacks. Neuvel takes us through some brilliant twists and turns as Rose follows her instincts and her science and comes to a shocking theory about why the robots came to Earth and what they want Earth's humans to prove.

     In a related story thread, the anonymous narrator (the same one featured in Sleeping Giants) enlists the aid two disgraced characters from the first novel: Chief Warrant Officer Ryan Mitchell, a love-struck pilot who nearly killed Vincent, and Dr. Alyssa Papantoniou, a sociopathic geneticist who kidnapped and experimented on Kara. One result of Alyssa's experimentation plays a major role in Waking Gods.

     Once again, Neuvel tells the story through interview transcripts and diary entries. Each major character has plenty of time between action scenes to indulge in some angst-filled interior monologues (the diaries). One warning: this is definitely not a stand-alone novel, so you will have a tough time fully understanding many of the references to past events if you have not read Sleeping Giants

     Although the plot is engaging, it slows down several times when Neuvel indulges in some overly technical and polemical rhetoric on a variety of subjects/causes. For example, there are a number of extremely technical discussions of genome science, like this one: "DNA's a nucleic acid....It's made up of smaller things called nucleotides. To make a nucleotide, you need three things. A phosphate, a base, and a sugar...If the sugar is the one we call deoxyribose, you get deoxyribonucleic acid, or DNA."(and it goes on for several more paragraphs). Later in the book, the narrator indulges in paragraphs of overblown rhetoric denouncing America's war with Iraq after the 9/11 attacks. He claims to be justifying his torture of the survivor of the fog attack, but it seems so unrelated to the matter at hand that it brings the action to a complete halt.

     As the plot wound down, I thought that this must be the final book in the series, but then the final sentence turned it into a cliff hanger, so there may be another book in the offing. If it were not for the technical and polemical insertions, I would give this book a five-star rating. But I'd have to ratchet that down to about a three because those sections give the book a choppy, start-stop feeling that throws off the pacing. 

     Click HERE to go to this novel's page where you can read or listen to an excerpt by clicking on the cover art for print or the "Listen" icon for audio.

    The series is set in the modern world with no futuristic elements. In this fictional world—just as in our real world—there is global unrest as nations clash with one another and make secret deals in order to attain greater power. Forging those deals is the job of anonymous behind-the-scenes people (generally men) who make decisions that are in their own best interest and make and break alliances, as they deem necessary. 

                              NOVEL 1: Sleeping Giants                              
     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, and 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? 

     NOTE: Sony has optioned the movie rights for Sleeping Giants. David Koepp (Jurassic Park, Spider-Man, Mission Impossible) is writing the script. Josh Bratman and Matt Tolmach are producing.

    The person who controls the telling of this story is an unnamed interviewer (or interrogator) who gives the characters—and the reader—only the information he deems necessary. The story-telling method is mostly a series of interview scripts and personal journal entries. That means that the reader rarely has direct access to actions and events in real time because the interviews and journal entries—the discussion and analysis—must necessarily come afternot duringthe occurrence of the events. This fact removes the reader from the thrill of battle, so to speak, but it does provide an opportunity to watch the interviewer in action as he manipulates the interviewees by prodding them to accept his interpretation of the facts and come to the conclusions that suit his long-term plans.

     The basic premise is that thousands of years ago a giant statue of a woman (20 stories high) was buried in pieces all over the globe. The interviewer is taking the lead in a project designed to locate all of the statue's body parts and put them under the control of a scientist—Dr. Rose Franklin—who will reconstruct it and figure out how it works. Rose first encountered one of the statue's hands when she was a child and fell into a crater. "There I was, this tiny little thing at the bottom of the hole, lying on my back in the palm of a giant metal hand." Now, in a twist of irony, (or perhaps through someone's secretive, long-term planning), she will be leading the team that discovers all of the statue's secrets.

     As more and more body parts arrive at Rose's laboratory under the Denver airport, it soon becomes clear that this is not a statue, but a highly sophisticated robot, and Rose's team is expanded to include two pilots who must crawl inside the robot and figure out how to make her move. The first pilot is Chief Warrant Officer 3 Kara Resnick. Kara is a stubborn, outspoken helicopter pilot in the U.S. Army. In her interviews, she constantly argues with and questions the interviewer, mostly to no avail. He definitely has an agenda, and he doesn't plan to share it with anyone. The other pilot is Chief Warrant Officer Ryan Mitchell. Two more members round out the list of supporting characters: Vincent Couture, a Canadian linguist, and Dr. Alyssa Papantoniou, a geneticist. Vincent's job is to translate some strange writing on the walls of the room in which the first robotic hand was found. Alyssa's task is to analyze the DNA of the pilots to understand why the robot seems to accept or reject their efforts to start her up and control her movements.

     The story moves along at a slow-to-moderate pace, and I must admit that it took me a while to get into it. You have to recognize that this is not a smoothly constructed narrative and accept the fact that the episodic style can make the story-telling seem a bit choppy. The novel's unconventional structure works well because the plot itself isn't traditional (although it does have its own version of exposition, setting, rising action, conflict, and climax). Contrary to the publisher's teaser, the plot does not center on Rose and the giant hand. Instead, it focuses on how Rose and her team members interact with the interviewer, with the robot, and among themselves as they familiarize themselves with this new technology and its implications for their personal lives and the world at large. It's also a dark and cynical take on modern world politicswhich turns out to be not very different from the political shenanigans currently taking place in our real world. 

     Once you get past the initial interviews and into the personal interactions of the characters, the interviewer's control begins to slip as human emotions like romance, jealousy, and ambition enter the picture and send events on unplanned paths. My favorite character is the snarky, manipulative interviewer, with prickly Kara as a close second. Although the interviewer at first appears to be a cold and heartless man, he soon shows himself to have a bit of a soft side (although his emotions never prevent him from taking some very heartless actions when he deems them necessary to further his long-term goals). The interviewer is like the Wizard of Oz behind the curtain, appearing to the characters as an all-seeing, all-powerful authority figure, but eventually being outed as something else when his curtain is pulled away. Although the initial interviews are coldly humorless, the characters (especially the interviewer) loosen up as the story advances, allowing some dry, sarcastic humor to filter through.

     The plot takes many twists and turns, many of which are due directly to human frailties, an ironic turn of events in a book devoted to an extremely powerful technical, non-human wonder. The epilogue provides the cliff-hanger that will launch the story line of the second book.
     Even though it took me a while to get into and through this novel, I'm glad that I made the effort. I noticed that one or two reviewers claimed that there were inconsistencies in the plot, but that's not the case. If you pay attention to what the characters say in their interviews and in their journals, everything fits together perfectly. This is a book to read at a leisurely pace, meeting and getting to know the characters, understanding the political and personal implications of each major event, andespeciallygetting into the interviewer's head as his plans don't take him exactly where he wantsand needsto go. This is an extremely inventive story told in a very creative manner, and I highly recommend it. Click HERE to read or listen to an excerpt from Sleeping Giants on the novel's page by clicking on the cover art for print or the "Listen" icon for audio.

FULL DISCLOSURE: My review of Sleeping Giants is based on an electronic advance reading copy (ARC) of the book that I received from the publisher through NetGalley. I received no promotional or monetary rewards, and the opinions in this review are strictly my own.

                              ABOUT THE AUTHOR                               
     Sylvain Neuvel dropped out of high school at age 15. Along the way, he has been a journalist, worked in soil decontamination, sold ice cream in California, and peddled furniture across Canada. He received a Ph.D. in linguistics from the University of Chicago. He taught linguistics in India, and worked as a software engineer in Montreal. He is also a certified translator, though he wishes he were an astronaut. He likes to tinker, dabbles in robotics and is somewhat obsessed with Halloween. He absolutely loves toys; his girlfriend would have him believe that he has too many, so he writes about aliens and giant robots as a blatant excuse to build action figures (for his son, of course). Click HERE and HERE to read on-line interviews with Neuvel about Sleeping Giants.

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