Tuesday, 2 May 2017

Book Review | Waking Gods by Sylvian Neuvel

As a child, Rose Franklin made an astonishing discovery: a giant metallic hand, buried deep within the earth. As an adult, she’s dedicated her brilliant scientific career to solving the mystery that began that fateful day: why was a titanic robot of unknown origin buried in pieces around the world? Years of investigation have produced intriguing answers—and even more perplexing questions. But the truth is closer than ever before when a second robot, more massive than the first, materializes and lashes out with deadly force.

Now humankind faces a nightmare invasion scenario made real, as more colossal machines touch down across the globe. But Rose and her team at the Earth Defense Corps refuse to surrender. They can turn the tide if they can unlock the last secrets of an advanced alien technology. The greatest weapon humanity wields is knowledge in a do-or-die battle to inherit the Earth... and maybe even the stars.


When she was a girl, Rose Franklin fell on a giant hand made of a metal mined, in the main, from meteorites. Determined to glean what it might mean, the government covered her discovery up and ordered its best and brightest minds to study this unlikely find. Where had the hand come from, how long had it been underground, and could you hit things with it? These were the interests of the military in particular, but decades later, they still couldn't say—not until Rose, now a leading figure in her field, headed up a second investigation.

In short order, she found that the hand was but a bit of a monolithic machine—a mech, I mean—the body parts of which had been buried around the world. After several international incidents, the rest of the robot was recovered, leaving Rose and her team to assemble Themis. Before long a pair of pilots were walking in it, astonishing the population of the planet in the process. But... well, why? What was it all for?

If Sleeping Gods left with you questions, know that there are answers to be had in the surprising second installment of The Themis Files. They come thick and fast, in fact.

In a sense, Sylvain Neuvel's entertaining debut related humanity's coming of age, and now that we're all grown up—now that we know we're not alone in the universe—Waking Gods wants to see how we'll behave in the face of an alien danger.
Thomas Henry Huxley [...] was a scientist in the early days of modern biology. He said: "The known is finite, the unknown infinite; intellectually we stand on an islet in the midst of an illimitable ocean of inexplicability. Our business in every generation is to recover a little more land." Almost a decade ago, when Themis was revealed to the world, we realised that ocean was a lot bigger than we thought, and what happened this morning in London has made our islet of certainty feel so small that we may wonder if we even have enough room to stand on. (pp.15-16)
What happened this morning in London was the mysterious appearance of a giant metal man, larger even than Rose's robot, that the media comes to call Kronos. Evidently, this isn't the alien invasion of our nightmares—indeed, Kronos doesn't say or do anything for days—and yet, after squabbling over how to react to the mech's admittedly threatening presence, the British Prime Minister bows to public pressure by ordering the army to impose a perimeter around Regent's Park. With tanks.

This may have been a mistake.

A fatal mistake, I'm afraid, for Kronos razes much of London in response, including the Houses of Parliament. Themis, then, arrives in England's capital city a little too late to save the day, but it does ultimately manage to destroy Kronos, killing its extraterrestrial pilots in the process. Unfortunately, there's more where Kronos came from. Within weeks, thirteen of these killing machines have materialised in the planet's most densely populated areas, where they start passing a gas that immediately kills millions.

With the odds stacked against humanity in this fashion, it falls once more to Rose to solve a problem no one else has a clue what to do about. But first, she has her own demons to defeat. Returning readers will recall her death and eventual resurrection in Sleeping Gods. It'd be an understatement to say she's struggled with that curious plot twist since. She doesn't remember dying, but she knows that it happened. To wit, neither we nor she can be sure she is who she believes herself to be. Beyond that there's the fact that—in first finding that hand, then figuring out what to do with it—she may not have saved the human race but doomed it.

Rose's burden may be bigger than that carried by her romantically entangled pilots, but Kara and Vincent's issues are also of significance: initially only to Kara and Vincent, but eventually to the world as well. Though they remain very much in love after nearly ten years together, and they recognise that that's no mean feat, their relationship is intensely tested when they discover they have a daughter; a daughter that may be the third person on the planet in a position to pilot Themis, humanity's only hope against the alien invaders.

In this way, Waking Gods is concerned with questions of destiny and identity—appealing themes indeed, if only they had been introduced and developed incrementally. Alas, between the relative brevity of this book—it's every inch a single-sitter—and the epistolary mode of storytelling that enriched the mystery of Sleeping Giants but seems something of a stranglehold in this straightforward sequel, neither notion is given the time to shine. So: softly does not do it. Instead, imagine a hammer to the head.

That blunt force was my most pressing problem with this novel, but I dare say your mileage may vary. Waking Gods is certainly bigger than its predecessor, but they're such different beasts that it'd be a stretch to suggest it's better. Clearly, there's more action than intrigue here... yet the action is exciting, and even, from time to time, enlightening. Imagine The War of the Worlds meets Neon Genesis: Evangelion, both of which popular properties Neuvel doffs his hat at.

Waking Gods also evinces a focus on narrative over character. But that results in a whole lot of absorbing plot, not to mention a few fascinating answers. We learn the identity of the enigmatic man whose interviews made up so much of The Themis Files the first; the whys and wherefores of Rose Franklin's resurrection are revealed; we even know, by the close of this part of the overarching narrative, what the beings who brought their monolithic machines here are about.

Truth be told, the whole story comes this close to wrapping up before Neuvel throws a spanner in the works with a surprise last line that positively explodes the premise of the series so far, promising, in the process, that the third book in The Themis Files will be bigger still. Whether or not it'll be better... well, only time will tell—time, and your tolerance of the turns this text takes, because while Waking Gods is a bunch of fun, it doesn't have the subtlety or the smarts or the sense of wonder of book one.


Waking Gods
by Sylvian Neuvel

UK Publication: April 2017, Michael Joseph
US Publication: April 2017, Del Rey

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