May 8, 2016

Review: Sleeping Giants

Sleeping Giants Sleeping Giants by Sylvain Neuvel
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I think this is one of those books people will either love or hate. I really liked it, but it's not for everybody. The reason for that is simple: this is not a conventional narrative structure at all. Aside from the prologue and a few journal entries, it's told entirely in the form of transcribed interviews, with a lean, stripped-down journalistic style. You certainly won't have to worry about any purple prose in this book.

This could get quite annoying if we had a massive cast of characters, a la World War Z. Fortunately, the author concentrates on a basic core group, "interviewing" them again and again. And in any case, it soon becomes clear that the interviewees, as important as they are to the story, are not the protagonists; it's the nameless, faceless interviewer, evidently a current or former CIA agent, who is the actual driver of the tale. He is the shadowy background lurker who sets many of the events in motion and cracks the whip, following in the footsteps of the X-Files' Cigarette Smoking Man.

I read the prologue online before I bought the book, so to recap without too many spoilers: At the age of eleven, Rose Franklin is taking her brand-new bicycle for a ride into the woods when she spots an odd turquoise glow. She goes to check it out and falls into a hole in the ground, where she finds...I'll just quote this from the prologue (and it's masterfully done, hooking the reader in just two pages):

It was about a week later that someone rang the doorbell. I called for my father to go, but I got no answer. I ran down the stairs and opened the door. It was one of the firemen that had gotten me out of the hole. He'd taken some pictures and thought I would like to see them. He was right. There I was, a tiny little thing at the bottom of the hole, lying on my back in the palm of a giant metal hand.

And with that, we're off to the races.

The rest of the book is the story of this discovery, and what it means for humanity. Rose Franklin returns seventeen years later, in possession of a Ph.D. and a burning desire to solve this globe-spanning mystery. The other core characters (besides the "CIA Spook" interviewer) include a blunt, badass, bad-tempered female helicopter pilot, a whitebread Army brat, and a language nerd. (These last two are male, which sets up an unfortunate love triangle that, in my mind, distracts from the overall storyline. Although I can understand why the author included it, because it generates a very important plot twist. Still, I wish he could have found some other way to get from point A to point B.)

There is an impressive level of craft involved in this, the author's first novel. Due to its format, there are almost no descriptions of any kind; the settings and characterizations are revealed entirely through the back-and-forth conversations of the interviews. This even carries over to the climax, which is the transcription of a frantic satellite phone call in the middle of a firefight. You would never think such a thing could work, but it absolutely does. This book is a fast and gripping read, with plenty to make the reader think after the last page is turned.

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