Sleeping Giants. Book Review

Sleeping Giants by Sylvain Neuvel
Penguin, p/b, 384pp, £7.99
Reviewed by Joely Black

When just a girl, Rose Franklin falls through a hole in the forest near her home and discovers a giant hand. This is something of a disingenuous opening to a novel that is as much about the complexities of international politics as it is about rebellious girls and archaeology. The hand in question belongs to a robot, some fifty feet high, its parts scattered about the planet by the aliens who left it here. This is a book for fans of Stargate and X-Files, not only for its extra-terrestrial element but for its careful development of relationships between the team members involved in uniting the robot’s parts and getting it to work.

Neuvel has taken a fascinating approach to this story, by telling it almost entirely through found documents, a twist on the epistolary form. Most of the action is related through interviews with main characters by an unnamed individual who has some complex and often unnerving relationships with major political powers. This is disorienting at first, although it evolves over the course of the novel until the reader is more interested in the person behind the interviews, the bold-texted voice, than the rest of the story.

After all, as one character remarks, leaving a massive, slow-moving robot on a planet is a daft form of defence. Even fans of Pacific Rim will agree that there’s a limited military value in huge robots, especially if they do not share the same basic physiognomy as the people who are supposed to use it. I suspect the ridiculousness of the robot itself, the immediate unlikeliness of it serving any practical purpose, will put off a lot of readers. There’s plenty to suggest that Neuvel has thought through other aspects of the story, but we are left to the unfolding series (the second novel is now available) to find out what he has in mind for these gigantic visions of impracticability.

Rose Franklin grows up to become a physicist, and is instrumental to finding and fitting the robot together. Much of the story focuses on the relationship between the robot’s two prospective pilots. Or three, because romance throws a spanner in the works leading to some fairly horrific consequences for one of the major characters. Indeed, scratch the surface, and this is yet another in a series of novels about the difficulties humans face when presented with new cultures and powers. Unlike series like James S A Corey’s Expanse books, Neuvel’s exploration of human foolishness is much more intimate, yet toward the end the results of very small human decisions have massive repercussions. A lot of the plot is heavily telegraphed, but the consequences are shocking nonetheless. This is definitely worth exploring, even to argue over.