Sleeping Giants, by Sylvain Neuvel

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – April 26, 2016

Summary: 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, 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?

Review: Sleeping Giants is a book that seems to be getting a load of very positive reviews, especially considering that this is apparently the author’s debut novel. It’s a shame, then, that I won’t be another voice chiming in with that positivity. This is a time when my voice is going to go a bit counter to others, because I really just didn’t enjoy Sleeping Giants that much.

I’m going to start out on a positive note and say that I can’t deny the premise of the novel is a really interesting one. The hand of what looks like a giant statue is discovered purely by accident as a young girl falls into the hole that reveals it. With that starts something that spans decades, following the discovery of the rest of the statue’s pieces, putting them together, and learning just what it’s all for in the first place. It comes across as something very much inspired by mech anime, and for those who are fans of such, then I can see that Sleeping Giants would be very appealing. And really, even for people such as myself, for whom mech-heavy anime holds very little appeal, the story and the slow reveals were decently interesting, and I was curious about how it would come together in the end. The statue appears to be older than any human civilization that could have built it, is made to be controlled by people with different physiology than humans possess, and that’s even before you bring the fun ramifications of international politics into the mix, since the statue’s pieces were scattered all across the planet, requiring often-illegal trips into foreign territory to recover them.

But premise and story alone aren’t always enough to carry a novel. As much as I prefer substance over style, there are times when particular styles can get in the way of enjoyment, and this was one of those times for me. The story is unveiled not through typical narration but through a collection of reports with a couple of journal entries thrown in along the way. The reports are mostly interviews and briefings with the team members working on the statue, and the occasional politician. So nearly every single piece of this book is told, essentially, through dialogue. Which, on one hand, may set it up to be a fantastic audiobook experience, but I don’t think it worked very well as a written one. The dialogue felt clunky at times, more like how people write rather than how people speak, and rarely did it feel like I was actually reading what people said so much as I was reading a cleaned-up version transcribed by someone who got creative with editing. There were no “um”s and “er”s, no idiosyncrasies of real speech, except when reading the interviews with a character who stutters. So even the representation of speech was inconsistent.

(The stutter issue is one that comes up a lot in books, I find, where authors attempt to convey speech disorders through text only when it’s a chronic issue, and rarely doing the same thing when non-stuttering characters fumble words. It has the unfortunate effect of presenting things as normal vs abnormal, notable only in how it divides a character with a speech disorder from other characters who don’t, and I’ve noticed such portrayals talked about as sore spots with people who have trouble communicating verbally. Something to consider, I guess.)

It was, to be fair, a bold and unconventional way to convey the story. Breaking away from standards and expectations, and I do have to give Neuvel credit for taking an unusual approach and experimenting with presentation, but it really just didn’t work for me. The style felt too weird for me to properly get at a lot of the substance.

Add to that the fact that it was a slow-moving story to begin with, with a sense of time that’s hard to pin down because it spans years and the only way you can tell is because characters literally mention that it’s been so many months since something previously mentioned (none of the reports were dated), and you’ve got a novel that I think can appeal to a particular type of person, but not every type. Even the action sequences felt ponderous and unclear, because I knew I was only reading transcriptions of dialogue spoken during events and not really seeing the events themselves. You have to infer a lot, you never really get clear images of people or places, and it feels very sterile.

And for its part, that does work in context. To expect great emotion and detail with such a format would be like expecting to know a child’s feelings on school by reading their report card. It’s just unrealistic to expect the same kind of immersion and understanding; the format really just doesn’t allow for it. The journal entries written by characters do, but those are few and far between, and mostly only show up in the first half of the book, when the plot really hasn’t picked up pace yet.

So between the slow story and my disconnect with the style, I didn’t really end up enjoying Sleeping Giants. It dealt with some interesting concepts, and there’s enough left unsaid to provide plenty of material for future novels in the series, but that wasn’t enough to get me past the problems I had. Those who have an easier time looking past stylistic issues may well get more out of the book than I did, and as I mentioned earlier, I can see it having a great appeal to those who love stories and shows about giant robots. It has a fair bit going for it in terms of creativity, but at the end of the day, it simply isn’t for me.

(Received for review from the publisher.)

2 comments on “Sleeping Giants, by Sylvain Neuvel

  1. I just finished this one myself. You wrote: “As much as I prefer substance over style, there are times when particular styles can get in the way of enjoyment” and I have to say I can’t agree more with this. I love the book’s premise and I love the epistolary style, but I don’t think this format suited the story very well. The dialogue felt unnatural, especially when the book had to convey a lot of technological/scientific details to the reader and you ended up with a huge info dump monologue, which in my mind defeats the purpose of the interview structure in the first place. The concept was amazing though, and it was so utterly fascinating that it kept me turning the pages. I wish the interview format hadn’t been so restricting, but I did enjoy the book a lot.

  2. I must admit that I wasn’t expecting this style when I went into the book and I completely get the point about the info dump feel of some of the chapters but I have to say I just really enjoyed the style. I can’t explain why it worked for me and not others but it really did. On top of that I was so intrigued by what was actually going on. I also admit that I hadn’t realised this wasn’t a standalone so in that respect I guess I’m disappointed not to be receiving all the answers but.. I can wait.
    Great review.
    Lynn :D

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