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The Themis Files
by Sylvain Neuvel

Reviewed by Galen Strickland

Book 1: Sleeping Giants / Book 2: Waking Gods / Book 3: Only Human

"There were giants in the earth in those days; and also after that, when the sons of God came in unto the daughters of men, and they bare children to them, the same became mighty men which were of old, men of renown." - Genesis 6:4, King James Version

This is a cross between science fiction and mythological speculation, as well as an espionage thriller and an apocalyptic scenario. It's gripping and fast-paced, even though the action is not directly depicted. Instead it is recounted after the fact in a series of interviews and personal logs of various people involved in a super-secret project to recover and reconstruct what appear to be ancient alien artifacts. The interviewer is a mysterious, never named man, most likely a former (or even current) CIA operative, or maybe from some other similar intelligence agency. He's a man who knows how to get things done, both in a logistic sense, as well as an ability to coerce (read, manipulate) other people to get them to do what he wants. He reminded me of the character nicknamed "Mr. Pink" in Weston Ochse's Grunt Life.

The short prologue shows Rose, an eleven year old girl in remote South Dakota, who takes her brand new birthday bike for a ride into the woods near her home. The ground beneath her feet collapses, and when she is discovered by rescuers hours later she is laying in the palm of a giant metallic hand, which in turn is inside a room constructed of similar materials, the walls of which are covered with cryptic symbols. Years later, Dr. Rose Franklin becomes one of the chief researchers into the mysterious artifact that fate saw fit to bring into her life. It is surmised to be just a portion of a whole, and attempts are made to discover other parts of the body and fit them back together. They succeed. When the torso is discovered, they find there is a hatch on the back which opens to reveal interior chambers, a control room, and two consoles believed to be where the "pilots" would operate the robotic beast. Fully constructed it is about 200 feet tall. It is humanoid in form, and it is assumed its creators were as well, with one major difference from homo sapiens. The knees bend in the opposite direction, which could pose difficulties for a human operator. The robot is female by outward appearance, and is named Themis, from the Greek goddess of divine law and order.

Sleeping Giants has already been optioned for film, although it is too soon to know if it will be completed. Many projects get trapped in development hell, either because of a problem getting an acceptable script, casting, or other production problems. Even if this does make it to the screen it will likely have to face criticisms due to similarities with other films. The two I thought of while reading were The Iron Giant and Pacific Rim. It still has potential, so script and casting are key to keep those comparisons to a minimum. Some might prefer a more straight-forward narrative technique rather than the interview approach. At least this way there was more than one perspective explored. Sorry for such a short review, but I wanted to keep spoilers to a minimum.

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I purchased the first book for my Kindle, but I received an advance digital copy of the second from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. In some ways Waking Gods is as good as the first book, in others it is weaker. The narrative style is the same, a combination of interviews, personal journals, military communications, transcripts of radio broadcasts, etc. It's all dialog with no other descriptive information, not even any "he said," or "she declared." You have to deduce who is speaking at the beginning of a chapter and infer who is replying. Sometimes they are addressed by name, other times they are only identified in the chapter's heading. In a few instances at least four or five are conversing, some face to face, others in radio communication. The mysterious operative's words are always in bold font, others might be italicized, or within [ ] or { }, or some other indicator. One section is a General's address to the U.N. Security Council, another is a letter from one person read by another.

The previous assumption was the story was being told after the fact by compiling all relevant recordings, which would mean the mysterious operative had recorded his conversations with "Mr. Burns" on several occasions in a Washington restaurant. Later, Dr. Franklin also meets with Burns, who may or may not be a descendant of the aliens who left Themis on Earth, and their conversation must have been recorded as well. Even the last conversation between Mystery Man and Dr. Franklin is reported, so either everything was on some recording, or the author is using omniscent third-person narrative style. As I said previously, it gives multiple perspectives on the action, but it does get a bit tiresome at times, and I longed for more exposition outside of the conversations.

There are still questions of the aliens' identity and origin, why they left Themis on Earth, if they were the ones who dismantled the robot and buried the pieces, or whether that was done by humans. It is possible it was similar to the "sentinel" monolith in Clarke's 2001, to be a signal to the aliens that humanity had advanced enough to be worthy of notice by reassembling Themis. If so, it could be an indicator of how distant the alien home planet is that ten years pass before another robot, male in form this time and larger than Themis, mysteriously appears in the middle of London. Then again, we have no way of knowing their technological advancement, whether or not they have exceeded faster-than-light propulsion. One minute the new robot is not there, the next it is. It is speculated it had to have "beamed" its way to Earth, since there is no other tracking data to account for it. The two pilots who had managed to control Themis in a limited fashion thought it was possible there was another means of locomotion other than just getting the robot to walk, but they had yet to discover it. The new robot is motionless for days, with the UN calling for patience. Eventually, the UK military tires of waiting, mobilizes tanks and troops to surround the intruder, which finally responds. I won't say what happens, but it's not good. Later, other robots appear in major population centers around the globe.

Even though there has been no announcement for a third book yet, the story is not over so I expect one. Which characters will be prominent in the future is questionable. Several have already died, but new ones have been introduced. One death was a great loss, since it was a character I considered the most sympathetic. Another was one I didn't like from the beginning, and nothing, even a feeble attempt to humanize them later, kept me from that antagonistic feeling. At least Dr. Rose Franklin is still with the project, even though she has already died once. No, I will not explain that. Both books end on cliffhangers, and while I can't say I love them, I am anxious to follow the story, but hopefully it will end with a third book. There are too many open-ended series these days as it is.

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Only Human will be released May 1, 2018, but I once again received a free ebook from NetGalley. It is the end of the series, or at least that seems to be what Neuvel implies in an afterword. It not only comes to a logical stopping point, the conclusion is also satisfactory. The narrative technique remains the same, and while that strained credulity a time or two, I can recommend this series. Some chapters were letters written by one character to another, but most scenes imply everyone always carried a digital recorder with them to document their every action. Either that or whoever compiled the story had access to every covert recording device, both on Earth and the alien planet of Esat Ekt.

At the end of the second book, Dr. Rose Franklin, and the operators of Themis, Vincent Coutoure and his daughter Eva, defeat one of the other robots in the middle of Central Park. Shortly after that, the other robots around the world disappear. During a celebration inside Themis, which also includes the military administrator of the project, Themis disappears as well. They end up on Esat Ekt, remaining inside the robot for several days without an investigation on the part of the aliens, and they are unable to disembark. Desperate because they are out of food and water, Vincent sets a fire inside Themis, which finally provokes a response. Vincent had been brought into the project because he was a linguist, with the hope he could help decipher the symbols on the robot's control panel. Now he has to learn the alien language in order to find out what is to be done with them, and hopefully to convince the aliens to return them to Earth.

The narrative switches back and forth between their time on Esat Ekt (nine years) and when they return to Earth. Unfortunately, or maybe fortunately, they appear in Estonia, and are taken prisoner by the Russian army. One might assume that the alien threat had brought the world together, but the exact opposite was the case. The aliens had come to Earth to kill or capture those of their people who may have contaminated humanity. Thousands of years had passed from their first appearance, and those who had remained on Earth had inter-married with humans. When Earth governments learned this, their reaction was to hunt down those who showed a higher level of alien DNA. It was as evil a manifestation of human paranoia as any other instance of ethnic cleansing in our history. On top of that, the US had been able to rebuild the robot Themis had defeated in New York, and was now using it to terrorize the world. Naturally, Russia wanted to be able to use Themis for their own defense. For the majority of the book, it seemed nothing was going to end well for anyone. But once again, Dr. Franklin finds a way.

It will be interesting to see what Neuvel does in the future. Hopefully he will work in a different narrative style, even if it is once again unconventional.

 

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Author
Sylvain Neuvel

Published
2016-18

Amazon Links:
Sleeping Giants
Waking Gods
Only Human