The Themis Files trilogy by Sylvain Neuvel is a science-fictions series that begins in book one after a young girl takes a small tumble into a giant hole one day while riding her new bike on her birthday. While looking around this oddly placed and astonishingly large hole, she notices the tip of giant metal phalanges sticking out of the dirt with glowing blueish lights. A ruckus is caused henceforth, changing the entire fate of humanity as the world knows it.
I read and reviewed the first instalment in this series, Sleeping Giants, in mid-March, and you can read my full spoiler-free review for it here. In this review, I’m going to briefly chat about the three volumes individually and then share my thoughts on how they work (or don’t work) as a series. My thoughts on the third book, Only Human, will not be completely spoiler-free. No major series plot points are discussed, however.
Sleeping Giants (Book #1)
Sleeping Giants wasn’t something I expected to like, frankly speaking. The hype surrounding this series was rather large and passionate and consisted of individuals who either loved it or hated it, with few in between. Hype can be an automatic deterrent for me with pretty much any form of media, however Sir Besty’s praising and poking and pushing finally made me check it out from the library.
Sleeping Giants is one of the best first books in a sci-fi series I have ever read. The biggest quality going for it is the peculiar format—which transcends all volumes—that consists of interviews, periodicals, and transcripts of various sorts. It’s original and untraditional and I can’t view The Themis Files as being a functioning narrative without this construction. It was a risk, but a brilliant one that worked immensely to its benefit, in many different ways (which I discuss in detail in my review).
There is an intangible shroud of mystery and suspense that goes hand-in-hand with everything that happens in the book, from when the phalanges are discovered and all of the events that are triggered in the discovery’s aftermath. Most of the intrigue stems from the characters as the story—even though it is science-fiction heavy in a realistic means and has lots of thought-provoking technical talk—is essentially driven by interpersonal and political relationships between people of all walks of life. The best part is that it constantly maintains the enigmatic magic of being held in suspense until the very end. Then it drops a mind-fuckery of a twist on you to leave you gasping with impatience.
Waking Gods (Book #2)
Waking Gods was a sequel I felt would never be able to live up to the quality of its predecessor, yet once again I was left with my jaw hanging in surprise. It was one of the very few sequels in a series that actually surpassed the quality of the first.
It follows the same structure and continues with starting off in a pool of suspense, but what made Waking Gods so much better were the reactions and consequences of everything that has happened up to this point. It’s hauntingly realistic and apt, particularly given how power hungry and corrupt humanity is in general. We never think about people as a whole collective, just selfishly of ourselves in terms of identifying markers pertaining to religion or ethnicity, for example. That shit can fuck up the sustainability of an entire race of people. Nothing as it relates to this topic ever came off as overdone or exaggerated, and that natural feeling was creepy and extremely disconcerting to me.
Those traits also make it supremely contemplative and emotionally evocative. Another thing that comes with constantly fighting for superiority is collateral damage, and when the damage occurs in Waking Gods, it’s like getting sucker punched. It aches slowly and intensely for extended periods of time, sometimes rendering you speechless. The barrage of plot twists (which surprisingly weren’t there solely for shock value but had a real purpose to them) also didn’t help with these feelings. Nevertheless, what it does do is offer remarkable growth and maturity (and immaturity) for the various cast members, as well as works to keep you hungrily drawn and morbidly curious to see how things shall get resolved (or more fucked-up).
Only Human (Book #3)
Only Human is far more difficult for me to talk about. I read it very shortly after the terrorist attack on the Islamic mosque in Christchurch, and in hindsight that may not have been a good idea. Nevertheless, I’m going to go with my hindsight feelings, and say that the finale, while extremely difficult to stomach at times, was quite fitting given what happens in the previous books.
This book shows us the ugliness of humanity and how in the face of collective insanity, we always choose to maintain a ridiculous dog-eat-dog mentality rather than place all of our stupid differences aside and learn to coexist so that we can do exactly that: exist. It shows us what totalitarian governments and outrageous level racism can do to people; how rather than learn about things that we are unfamiliar with or make efforts to understand something better in a peaceful way, we would rather toss it into concentration camps and dehumanise it to validate our own feelings of inferiority; and how children are never, ever spared from these levels of ignorance and hatred.
Through it all, even the extreme of the extremes, one thing stays constant: it’s believability. Only Human was so challenging to read for me because I am someone who is an “other” who gets blamed for so much shit simply for being what I am: female, Queer, brown, Muslim—and when everything finally reaches a boiling point here, it is once again the “other” who must bear the weight of it all.
You can’t defeat terrorism on a whole planet, it’s not an army you can crush. That’s why it’s called terrorism. There’d always be one person left somewhere to blow up more things.”
Writing something of this calibre is extremely difficult, particularly when it comes to representing those feelings and experiences accurately. Yet, Only Human, does give that representation so much justice that I found myself crying intensely for the people in the book who were hurting and yelling angrily for the one who were demonising.
If I had one complaint to share, it would be that I had hoped the content, specifically in regard to terrorism, would have been less cliché. Nothing so far in the series has followed specific moulds within the genre. It takes common tropes and puts a breath-takingly new spin on them that makes it feel so beautifully imaginative. However, in Only Human, we fall back to some common tropes that I was expecting to see with a different formula. It doesn’t make the book bad or lesser by any means, but it was slightly disappointing to me.
The Themis Files as a series is extraordinary. The first book offers the basic foundation for everything that will happen in the following books, but it also maintains its own set of conflicts and resolutions, as do the other instalments. So many science-fiction novels tend to begin with conflicts and offer half-arsed resolutions that are then delegated to the next novel and then the one after that, until everything is rushed at the end, or ignored/forgotten about entirely. I cannot express how much I adored the fact that The Themis Files didn’t do that. There is the main over-arching “Oh Shit” problem that is happening, but we see the branches that this big issue causes, and I enjoyed reading about these branches getting snipped appropriately rather than being left to drag on indefinitely.
Another thing that works excellently for the series as a whole is the pacing. It is a very fast-paced series, and that stride never loses its overall propulsion. It may slow down for short periods here and there to help with development or create emotional ties between the reader and the characters, yet even so it’s so instinctive as to never feel misplaced. I read all three books, individually, within one day or two.
Each new book gives the reader a whole new set of shit to think about, particularly where politics and global relations are concerned. Sometimes reading about the issues that are vehemently taking place in the real world within a fictional setting can be depressing, or even off-putting. Nonetheless, I think because of how real and how extremely possible the scenarios shared in The Themis Files are given the present global conflicts, it makes it difficult not to look away. It’s a weird combination of watching an inevitable car accident and watching an informative documentary to help prepare you for an upcoming travesty. It’s a strange sort of seduction. Many times during my reading escapades, I had to close the book and ponder what I would do or how I would react if I were in the shoes of the respective individual(s) of whom I was reading about.
The series also has strong females, from the first book until the last book. Strong, intelligent, occasionally loud-mouthed and fiercely frightening women that you seriously would not want to fuck with on any level. They are also flawed and sincere, making them feel down-to-earth and empathetic.
If there is anything that I feel may be a problem for some readers (I only had mild issues as I adjusted to it in the beginning of books two and three), then it’s the time jumps. Moderate chunks of time do elapse between books one and two, and two and three. For people who aren’t a fan of time jumps in their stories, you won’t care for it here either. While the narrative does fill in the vast majority of that space, and through the flow of the story rather than awkwardly squeezing it in, it can begin to feel a bit befuddling (mostly in the last volume).
Another thing that will be difficult for some readers to take in are the instances of racism and ostracization that are portrayed in the third and final novel. As I mentioned above, there is use of concentration camps and there is psychological and physical abuse due to being “other,” as well as acts of terrorism. These things almost made me not want to read it, but, as aforementioned, that was mostly due to terrible timing on my part.
Overall, The Themis Files is an incredible science-fiction trilogy that I highly recommend to fans of the genre, more so if you prefer your sci-fi to be realistic and involving giant metallic limbs of sorts. I’m purposefully being vague here because the discovery of them within the book (when you are unaware of what they are) plays quite a bit to the suspense of it! It’s not perfect across the board, but it’s pretty close to it.
4.5 metallic fingers outta 5!