Sleeping Giants: Sci-fi thriller debut is one of the best of 2016

Sleeping Giants by Sylvain Neuvel science fiction book reviewsSleeping Giants by Sylvain Neuvel

Sylvain Neuvel’s Sleeping Giants honorably borrows from notable films — Pacific Rim, The Iron Giant, and the Indiana Jones series — in this creative take on first contact in a contemporary world of shadowy government operatives, high tech archaeology, and mystery-shrouded alien technology.

Rose Franklin was the little girl who fell into the mysterious metal hand. Years later, with a physics Ph.D. in hand, Dr. Franklin is appointed to lead the investigation into the metal object.

The story itself is compelling: very few details emerge about the hand other than its bizarre physical makeup; when lightly irradiated, the metal glows; it’s clearly nothing that humans could make. But what is it? Is the hand just a hand … or is there more?

Enter the mysterious ‘manipulator’. A not-quite-government/not-quite-quasi-military individual (I think it’s a man, but it’s never quite clear), is positioned as the pivot upon which the story turns. He acts in a supervisory role over the investigation of the Hand, though it’s never clear what exactly his job is nor whom he reports to. He’s got government connections. He has access to money. He’s super shady. And he’s a dealer in information. He, quite simply, knows everything about everyone.

Neuvel tells his tale in the form of a series of ‘files’ — each file is in the form of a report of some past incident … most of which are interview-style (mostly Mr. Manipulator conducting the interview), and only one is relayed in the form of a real-time event. A handful are pulled from personal diaries and official reports.

Neuvel works wonders with this epistolary-style storytelling. Mr. Manipulator puppet-masters, bullies and cajoles the individuals he wants into the roles required throughout the story. He recruits Kara, the rule-defying pilot. Then Vincent , the French-Canadian linguist and Ryan, the young Army co-pilot. And finally Alyssa, the hard-headed geneticist.

In Sleeping Giants, each character’s voice develops individually and definitively throughout the novel, with Neuvel managing tone like a master pianist. He imbues a serious story, including brief but intense flashes of violence, with a persistent sense of humor and snark.

It’s difficult to delve too deeply into the story without forcing a future reader to forfeit the joy of discovery. Try to imagine a partnership of Guillermo Del Toro and Ridley Scott, with a conservative amount of Michael Bay, delivering a sci-fi tale of a futuristic Manhattan Project.

One more hint … Sleeping Giants is the first in an upcoming series by Neuvel called The Themis Files. The ‘Files’ refers to the structural presentation of the story. Themis is the ancient Greek Titaness and the personification of law and order. Yep. That’s all I’m gonna say…

This is a fantastic novel — it’s a fast read and not just due to its taut 320 pages. The mystery, thrill and action propel the furious plot, and Neuvel has specifically built the drama to pull the reader from file to file. This will go down as one of the top science fiction debuts (if not novels) of 2016.

~Jason Golomb

Sleeping Giants by Sylvain Neuvel science fiction book reviewsJason’s absolutely right; Sleeping Giants is tensely plotted and filled with moments that set my heart racing. I tend not to like epistolary novels because, too often, the author can’t maintain drama or suspense while relaying past events via interviews or journal entries, and I am happy to say that Sylvain Neuvel does not falter in that regard. He really made me care about the characters, even the nameless interviewer, to the point where one person’s actions made me so angry that I yelled at the book. (Really!)

It’s not hard to see Neuvel’s influences: there are the movies Jason mentioned, and Dr. Rose Franklin seems to be inspired by real-life chemist Dr. Rosalind Franklin. Chief Warrant Officer Kara Resnik is strikingly similar to Captain Kara “Starbuck” Thrace of the 2004-2009 television series Battlestar Galactica. (While not physically alike, the characters are both hotshot pilots who suffer from intimacy issues and a particular medical trauma.) On the whole, though, I thought the inspirations were well-incorporated and enrich the reader’s experience without overtaking the interesting and creative narrative Neuvel is building.

I plowed through Sleeping Giants in a single evening, which hadn’t been my goal, but became inevitable as more pieces of the artifact were uncovered and the research team discovered more about its purposes and history. Scientific reasoning was balanced against human drama and emotions in a brilliant way, and enough tantalizing hints were dropped that I desperately want the next installation of THE THEMIS FILES to be published as soon as is humanly possible.

~Jana Nyman

Sleeping Giants by Sylvain Neuvel science fiction book reviewsI first read Sleeping Giants six months ago and was immediately sucked into its world. I stayed up far too late reading it, finishing it the next day when I really should have been working. History repeats itself: When it came time to write this review, I thought I would take a quick glance through this novel, reading a few pages here and there to remind myself of the important plot points. Instead I read the entire book again, in one sitting, staying up until past 2:00 a.m. Clearly Sleeping Giants is literary crack and I had best stay away from it when any other duty ― or my bed ― is calling.

Sleeping Giants takes several ingredients that always appeal to me ― geeky science, governmental conspiracies, a master planner with ice water in his veins, intelligent characters, and dry humor ― and folds them into a mystery about a very strange artifact. The story is told through a series of recorded interviews and journal entries and the like. It’s been done before, but I thought the format lent itself well to the plot. We get to know the characters through their own words. Intriguingly, the “files” that make up the chapters often skip over several numbers at a time (e.g., File No. 17 is followed by File No. 31), increasing the sense of reality by implying how much backstory remains untold.

Rose Franklin, riding her bike on her eleventh birthday, falls into a fifty-foot deep hole that suddenly appears in her path. When she comes to the next morning, she is lying on a twenty-three foot long metal hand at the bottom of a perfectly square hole, as big as a house, with bright turquoise light shining from unreadable symbols carved in the walls around her.


Twenty years later, Rose, now a senior scientist at the University of Chicago, is placed in charge of a team researching the nature of the hand and the symbols on the wall panels. Carbon dating shows the hand to be between five and six thousand years old, and linguists have never been able to interpret any of the symbols (which are inexplicably still glowing). The hand and writing have baffled scientists for years. But suddenly it occurs to Rose: What triggered the sudden appearance of the hand? Surely there must be other metal body parts to go with the hand, and can we cause them to appear as well? As she figures out the answer, the team ― and this novel ― are off and running: various immense pieces of the artifact are extracted (often from other countries, which causes some political upheaval) and put together; some mysteries are solved, only to give rise, in Hydra-like fashion, to many more.

Their mysterious handler (aka Mr. Manipulator, as Jason so aptly describes him) begins to bring in key new members of the team, with Dr. Franklin as the head and heart of it. Kara Resnik, the hotshot helicopter pilot, who is both incredibly stubborn and irascible but also funny and vulnerable, was my favorite, but each team member is a distinct individual with their own personality quirks and flaws. The key players are Victor Couture, a brilliant French Canadian linguist; Ryan Mitchell, Kara’s co-pilot who is variously compared to Captain America and an underwear model by other characters; and Alyssa Papantoniou, a geneticist with a stammer and a desire to be in charge. Even the nameless handler, whom we get to know only through his interviews of other characters, develops as a character. He appears extremely cold-blooded, though with a sardonic sense of humor:

I read his file. I believe he is more resilient than you give him credit for.
―You rea … He has a file?
Your hairdresser has a file and you see him once a month. Vincent Couture is a foreign national on US soil, with direct access to top-secret-level information on a daily basis. He has several files, very large ones.
―You have a file on my hairdresser?
Yes. He really needs to file his taxes.

Though he never ceases weaving his plans and pulling the strings of others, he gradually becomes more sympathetic and understandable.

Sleeping Giants has just the right amount of hard science, enough technical and scientific details to satisfy the geek in me, but it never goes overboard (like, say, Seveneves), and it’s infused with delightfully imaginative developments. In the cold light of day I have a few quibbles with the science parts, particularly toward the end of the novel, and if you’re interested in spoilers, you’ll want to start highlighting here: In particular, I have issues with the practicality of backwards-bending knees in a two-legged being, and how these or any other alien beings could interbreed with humans many millennia ago. I realize the latter is a time-honored science-fiction trope, but still! However, these are relatively minor nitpicks. [end spoiler]

What raises Sleeping Giants to the 5-star level for me is that it’s not just a grand, imaginative science-fiction adventure that inspires a sense of wonder in me, but it also raises some deeper questions. Several characters ask themselves about the cost of their project in human lives. Rose Franklin, in particular, has an even longer perspective, wondering about the potential ramifications of the device to either wipe human life from the face of the Earth or to create a Utopia for mankind. She’s responsible for something that is much larger than just herself, and that places a heavy burden on her.

More than the question of human cost vs. technological value, some of the characters also recognize the profound change this artifact may bring to humans and our view of ourselves and the universe. As we realize that humanity is not alone, that there are other intelligences out there, the differences between our races, nations, religions and political views become less important, and boundaries are erased.

~Tadiana Jones

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JASON GOLOMB, on our staff from September 2015 to November 2018, graduated with a degree in Communications from Boston University in 1992, and an M.B.A. from Marymount University in 2005. His passion for ice hockey led to jobs in minor league hockey in Baltimore and Fort Worth, before he returned to his home in the D.C. metro area where he worked for America Online. His next step was National Geographic, which led to an obsession with all things Inca, Aztec and Ancient Rome. But his first loves remain SciFi and Horror, balanced with a healthy dose of Historical Fiction.

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JANA NYMAN, with us since January 2015, is a freelance copy-editor who has lived all over the United States, but now makes her home in Colorado with her dog and a Wookiee. Jana was exposed to science fiction and fantasy at an early age, watching Star Wars and Star Trek movie marathons with her family and reading works by Robert Heinlein and Ray Bradbury WAY before she was old enough to understand them; thus began a lifelong fascination with what it means to be human. Jana enjoys reading all kinds of books, but her particular favorites are fairy- and folktales (old and new), fantasy involving dragons or other mythological beasties, contemporary science fiction, and superhero fiction. Some of her favorite authors are James Tiptree, Jr., Madeleine L'Engle, Ann Leckie, N.K. Jemisin, and Seanan McGuire.

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TADIANA JONES, on our staff since July 2015, is an intellectual property lawyer with a BA in English. She inherited her love of classic and hard SF from her father and her love of fantasy and fairy tales from her mother. She lives with her husband and four children in a small town near the mountains in Utah. Tadiana juggles her career, her family, and her love for reading, travel and art, only occasionally dropping balls. She likes complex and layered stories and characters with hidden depths. Favorite authors include Lois McMaster Bujold, Brandon Sanderson, Robin McKinley, Connie Willis, Isaac Asimov, Larry Niven, Megan Whalen Turner, Patricia McKillip, Mary Stewart, Ilona Andrews, and Susanna Clarke.

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  1. Great reviews, Jason and Jana! Jana, I love that you found connections between some of these characters and actual individuals, which I had completely missed.

    • Great review, yourself! I love that we were all really enthusiastic about the book, since I wasn’t sure if three people would be able to agree on various merits or drawbacks. :)

  2. High Five!

    I really enjoyed this book and I’ve read some ‘blahs’ this year so far. I loved the premise and Neuvel delivered a terrific story.

  3. I have the audio, yay! I don’t know if I should read it now, or wait for the other books….

  4. Kevin Wei /

    Oh wow, I’m highly intriguied – this book sounds amazing! Tadiana – can’t believe you read it twice??? Must be good. This is moving to the TOP of my to read list :)

  5. Kevin Wei /

    Jana and Jason – I guess a bit of a difficult question (and something I’ve struggled with occasionally, so I’m asking) – why the 4.5 and not 5 star rating?

    • For me, it was the character similarities between Kara Resnik and Kara Thrace. They were just a little too close for my liking.

  6. Interesting. I was super disappointed in this. Shallow character development, no action, tedious gimmick with the “interview” format, and the whole thing turns out to be nothing more than a setup for its inevitable sequel. Neuvel has some neat idea but no real clue how best to dramatize them yet.

    • I can see how Sleeping Giants might not appeal to all SF readers, and you explain well why it didn’t work for you, Thomas. But for me it just hit all the right buttons, as I explain in my review. I found it hugely enjoyable.

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