It’s a peculiar fact of my reviewing life that sometimes the things I enjoy the most end up falling by wayside. Family life intervenes, new deadlines arrive, and books I’ve loved sit on the paper mountain patiently waiting for the attention they deserve. So it is with the Themis Files by Sylvain Neuvel, one of the best trilogies I’ve read in a very long time.
I started the first book, Sleeping Giants, back in May and devoured it, and the two subsequent books, Waking Gods and Only Human, in short order. Yet it’s only now that I’ve found a gap in the schedule to write about them. (Even then, they had to muscle N.K. Jemisin’s excellent The Fifth Season out of the way first. Look out for another 5 Reasons post soon!).
The Themis Files are science fiction of the highest order. Here are five reasons why you should read them.
1. Each Volume Is as Strong as the Others
I find with many modern trilogies the follow-up books are weaker than the first. It often feels like all the best ideas were put into book one and, after a successful first volume, the author is asked to write more along the same vein. In a year. , The first book in the series is often a complete story and what then follows feels bolted on; a continuation of something that was already complete.
Not so with the Themis Files. I’m not sure how the overall story arc evolved, in author Sylvain Neuvel’s mind, but despite Sleeping Giants being a complete story, there are enough dangling threads to make a seamless connection to Waking Gods. The continuation into Only Human is a little more jarring, there is a marked change in tone, but nevertheless, the series works. The three volumes combine to make a satisfying whole.
2. The Strong Premise
At the heart of all science fiction is the concept. Neuvel‘s premise is not an original one, but in his hands feels fresh and original. A mysterious artifact is found in the ground. A giant hand, somewhere in small-town America. Alien technology, thousands of years old.
The rest of Sleeping Giants and the follow-up novels charts how humanity deals with such a discovery. As new parts are found, what does it mean for our history, science, and religion? What will humanity’s response be? How do we cope with the discovery that not only are we not alone in the universe but also technologically insignificant to whatever is out there?
Neuvel’s handle on the human condition makes his analysis of humanity’s response compelling and highly readable.
3. Perfect Delivery of Plot
I don’t remember the last time I read a novel (or indeed three novels) where the narrative reveals were delivered with such perfection. The front cover of my copy of Sleeping Giants quotes “This year’s The Martian” and whilst the books are only superficially similar in content, they are matched in their page-turning qualities. The books are filled with hooks and reveals that insist you keep on reading to find out what the latest development will mean for the story and its characters. Neuvel is also not afraid to make unexpected decisions. Nobody is safe as the story develops.
4. Excellent Characters
That Neuvel is ruthless with regard to his characters is made all the harder because they are all so good. Dr. Rose Franklin, the lead scientist, is a fine character; driven and compassionate. Her supporting cast is excellent too, particularly the shadowy secret services operative, who is working to a who-knows-what agenda. His dry sense of humor makes the book into something special, especially in his interplay with one of Franklin’s bodyguard’s the tough, uncompromising Kara Reznick. The characters in the Themis Files are central to its success. The story is good, but its the fact that we can identify with and care so deeply for its protagonists that makes the narrative so compelling.
5. Real-World Parallels
Any regular readers of my 5 Reasons posts will know I love a real-world parallel. As previously mentioned Neuvel’s handle on the human condition is part of what makes the novels so strong. The predictable folly of humanity’s behavior, when confronted by an alien race, is well-portrayed. Of course, the books are fiction, so perhaps Neuvel is way off the mark, but I don’t think so.
The novels are not overtly political but there is an undeniable shift in focus between the first two books and book three, a book that was written after November 2016. I don’t think the subject and themes of the book are entirely coincidental in this respect.
The Themis Files is a riveting set of books based on a great premise. They demand to be read in huge chunks. It’s one of those reading experiences that blocks out the rest of the world as you revel in its delights. The depiction of human ingenuity and frailty is spot on, particularly when blended with some subtle real-world parallels. Strong characters, excellent dialogue, and super-tight plotting make the Themis Files consistently fine across all three volumes.
Disclosure: I received review copies of these books for review.