Waking Gods is the second novel in Sylvain Neuvel’s science fiction series, the Themis Files, and follows on a few years later from Sleeping Giants. You most definitely need to have read Sleeping Giants first and this review assumes you’ve had the pleasure.
When little Rose Franklin fell into a hole in the ground, right into the palm of an extraordinary, enormous metal hand, of unknown construction and astonishing age, the world changed forever. Humanity now knew that it did not exist alone in the universe. This was the hand of a giant robot of alien origin, buried aeons ago, as were the robot’s other parts, which were scattered across the planet. Over the years Rose, now grown and a scientist, led the project to rebuild the robot – Themis. But not just to rebuild it – to pilot it, to understand it. The question of whether this was the right thing to do continues to haunt Rose. She has suffered for it in the worst of ways and many have died or been irrevocably altered, especially its pilots, Vincent and Kara.
A shock is coming. Another robot, bigger than Themis, appears out of the blue in London. It stands still. Nobody knows what it will do. Some flee while some can’t keep away from it, even picnicking by it. But while the world makes up its mind, the robot does it for them. It begins to move. And all hell breaks loose.
As with Sleeping Giants, the narrative is presented as a series of interviews conducted by the mysterious and enigmatic interrogator, as well as journal extracts, news reports, reflections. This means that we spend time with all of the key protagonists in the most immediate fashion and in the most tense circumstances. It’s a style that definitely works in these novels. We sometimes circle around the same critical event from a range of perspectives. There is conflict between the individuals as well as great affection in some cases. Themis herself feels almost alive although she continues to be enigmatic and unknowable.
I’m so fond of these characters, particularly Vincent and Kara but also the interrogator. We learn a little more about him here and some of what we learn surprises. He’s almost as impossible to know as Themis but there are glimpses of his true nature – and it is ambiguous. Kara and Vincent continue to make me care for them and their relationship is central to the novel. Rose Franklin is an intriguing character but her struggle to identify herself makes us keep our distance. She also embodies some important questions about the nature of the origin of these robots. While others bring the militaristic, strategic or political element to the story, Rose brings the science.
Sylvain Neuvel tells a great story. Waking Gods is thoroughly exciting – aliens, giant robots, intrigue, danger, explosions, mystery. All of the ingredients for an entertaining science fiction thriller are here and they’re mixed to perfection. It’s a fast read, very hard to put down, and this is speeded up even further by the dramatic structure. There are surprises and shocks in this novel, far more than I was expecting and some left me reeling and wondering where on earth the story could go from this. But proceed it did and its fantastic ending left me wanting much, much more and soon.