Thrilling sci-fi novel asks how far you would go in the name of science

Sleeping Giants by Sylvain Neuvel

I heard a crack behind me. It could have been a hare. Something drew my eye to the bottom of the hill. I left my bicycle on the trail and started slowly making my way down, moving branches out of my way. It was hard to see, as the leaves hadn’t fallen yet, but there was this eerie turquoise glow seeping through the branches. I couldn’t pinpoint where it came from. It seemed to be coming from everything.’

A girl named Rose is riding her bike near her home when she falls through the earth. She wakes at the bottom of a square hole, its walls glowing with intricate carvings. But the firemen who come to save her peer down upon something even stranger: a little girl in the palm of a giant metal hand. 17 years later, the mystery of the bizarre artefact remains unsolved. But there are those who refuse to stop searching for answers.

I hadn’t heard anything about this book, hadn’t read any reviews or heard any praise, so I went into it completely blind. Sometimes I find it’s best to do that with books, so your reading isn’t influenced by anyone else’s opinion. That said, here’s what I thought.

I admit that when I first started reading I was thrown off a little by the style. While the first chapter is told in normal prose, after that the narrative is put together in an epistolary structure – through recorded conversations, mission logs, journal entries, etc. The result is a fascinating piecing together of a story that has more twists and turns than a rollercoaster.

The risk with an epistolary narrative is that it always risks sounding unrealistic, but, aside from a few awkward moments when characters are giving obvious exposition through dialogue, Neuvel carries it off with aplomb. There are a handful of main characters each given a unique voice and personality traits and so realistically drawn that by the time you finish the book you’ll feel as though you really know them.

The frequent twists and turns are sure to keep you engrossed, and the plot was increasingly unpredictable; you can never be sure what’s going to happen from one page to the next. Although it has some big ideas behind it, Neuvel never once gets bogged down in the jargon and manages to keep his story moving at the pace of a thriller.

Despite its thrills and action sequences, however, Sleeping Giants is also largely concerned with ethics. It will force you to question how far you would be willing to go in the name of scientific progress, how much you would be willing to sacrifice, and whether weapons of mass destruction are ever a good idea.

This is the first book in a trilogy (the second book is out now and the third is out in May), and the last few pages are certain to have you coming back for more.

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Natasha Pulley’s second novel is a charming book full of magic and wonder

The Bedlam Stacks by Natasha Pulley

Although I hadn’t been shot at for years, it took me a long time to understand that the bang wasn’t artillery. I sat up in bed to look out of the window, half-balanced on my elbows, but there was nothing except a spray of slate shards and moss on the little gravel path three floors below. There had been a storm in the night, huge, one of those that takes days and days to form and gives everyone a headache, and the rain must have finally worked loose some old roof tiles.’

1859. Merrick, a crippled smuggler working for the East India Company, heads deep into uncharted territory to find cinchona trees, the only source of the quinine that can cure malaria. Surrounded by local stories of lost time, cursed woods and living rock, Merrick must separate truth from fairytale and find out what befell the last expeditions.

Last year Pulley released her debut novel, The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, to outstanding reviews. It was one of my favourite books of 2016, so my expectations were high for The Bedlam Stacks. Fortunately, Pulley has written her second novel in the same vein as her first and is clearly on to a winning formula.

Pulley seamlessly blends historical fiction and fantasy, whilst hopping through various other genres including thriller, steampunk and sci-fi. The plot takes the reader on an adventure into the fantastical wilds of Peru, where lamps are made of golden pollen, statues move freely, and no one crosses the salt line separating the town from the forest for fear of disappearing.

One of the things I enjoyed most about this book were the characters. They seem so real and empathetic that you can easily imagine them stepping off the page and reaching out to shake your hand. The intimate, delicately written moments between characters are so awkward and realistic that you can’t help but fall in love with them. Merrick is a highly empathetic character, a man with an edge who is searching for a new purpose in life. In Peru he meets Raphael, a young priest, and their growing friendship is a delight to watch unfold.

As with The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, there is much more to this book than first appears. An adventure it may be, but it is also a heartfelt exploration of time, identity and friendship. The fantasy elements sit easily alongside meditations on duty and the contrasts between different cultures. Science and fantasy walk side by side, intertwining in wondrous ways and creating a beautiful tapestry of a story.

It does take a while to get started so it requires a fair bit of patience to muddle through the short sentences and long-winded descriptions in the opening chapters, but Pulley soon hits her stride and plunges you into an immersive, fantastical world.

Pulley writes with flair and imagination, juggling a complicated plot with apparent ease. If you’re looking for escapism, look no further. This is a charming book, full of magic and wonder, and I urge you to pick up a copy.

Many thanks to Bloomsbury for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.