Sleeping Giants by Sylvain Neuvel book review

Sleeping Giants by Sylvain Neuvel is a tale of first contact

Sleeping Giants Sylvain Neuvel

The discovery of alien life is a delicate business in Sleeping Giants, the first in a proposed trilogy. It’s not really a surprise to read that Sylvain Neuvel’s debut novel has been optioned for a film. It’s fast-moving, gripping, and affecting enough to make you forget the slightly unusual storytelling method.

As a child, Dr Rose Franklyn accidentally uncovers a giant metal hand, which is alien in origin. As an adult, Franklyn is leading the secret investigation into what exactly this thing is and where it came from when another piece is uncovered by a military helicopter crew in the Middle East.

As more segments are found, the small team realises that they fit together to form some kind of humanoid (although clearly alien in origin) robot, and one that can be piloted. But how will the world react to such a powerful weapon? And why would it have been left on Earth in the first place?

The story unfolds almost exclusively as a series of interviews (and some journal entries and reports) conducted by an unnamed, but obviously powerful, figure. Neuvel’s method might be a little tricky to get used to at first, but the author quickly establishes the distinct and interesting personalities of the various team members, as well as the shady operative whose actions push the narrative along, and who quickly becomes the most fascinating.

There’s something very Michael Crichton-esque about Sleeping Giants, not just in its ‘where did this come from, is it dangerous and why is it here?’ setup, but in the collection of soldiers and scientists assembled to answer that question.

Of the characters, Dr Rose is so excitable and benign that she’s an excellent point of introduction to the story. Pilot Kara Resnik is endearingly insubordinate and difficult to get on with, her co-pilot Ryan Mitchell is an apparent puppy-dog, genius Vincent Couture is seemingly better with the science than he is with people, and scientist Alyssa Papantoniou is a little too eager to conduct invasive medical tests. Each character surprises, but they do so in ways that feel natural.

The political manoeuvring is just as important and compelling as the big questions. Our interviewer is operating in tricky political waters, and the problem of how other nations will respond to this incredibly powerful otherworldly weapon gives the story an extra level of tension. Not that it particularly needs it, as the conflicts between the team members will keep you committing to just one more chapter after you planned to go to bed.

At times the narrative technique does feel a little too simple, allowing Neuvel to jump from conflicts and cliff-hangers to their resolution, but it gives the novel such a brisk pace that it’s hard to quibble too much. When the action is unfolding as it happens, as opposed to an incident being reported, it’s absolutely gripping.

Apparently the first part of a trilogy, Sleeping Giants works very well as a standalone sci-fi that manages to make an enormous world event feel personal. Read it before they make the film.