Waking Gods, the second book in The Themis Files, hit shelves nearly a year after its predecessor. In The Themis Files, Sylvain Neuvel combines government conspiracy, aliens, and giant battle robots along with a tense narrative style. The other volume in this brand new series, Sleeping Giants, was a finalist for a 2016 Goodreads Choice Award. Waking Gods shifts the overall plot of the series along a predictable but overall enjoyable axis with minor disappointments along the way.
As the second of three books, Waking Gods had the duty to be the chapter where everything gets worse. Like The Empire Strikes Back or The Two Towers, this is the act that leaves the heroes utterly discouraged and caught in the throes of the antagonist. In the case of Waking Gods, it means Vincent, Kara, and their giant robot, Themis, get pummeled time and time again by an army of invading robots, who break out new and terrifying weapons. Our characters enter really dark emotional territory. For example, the Narrator (whose name is never given) murders a journalist for reasons that never became clear to me.
Readers who started with this book, instead of Sleeping Giants, shouldn’t fret: this series does have moments of levity. The Narrator, as mentioned, returns and so does his wit. Furthermore, Neuvel puts him in a situation where we have to imagine him playing with squirrels for military research. Vincent and Kara’s romance follows the next logical step in a narrative – a kid – but it comes about under interesting circumstances. Ryan Mitchell and Alyssa Papantoninou make appearances that feel more like cameos (especially in Ryan’s case) than actual character developments. And, per the big reveal at the end of Sleeping Giants, Dr. Franklin has come back from the dead.
Waking Gods steers the story back toward Dr. Franklin as the actual main character. She essentially has no memory of the last book, but, as a genius physicist, she copes. Also, Neuvel gives the story ten years of elbow room, a la Attack of the Clones, so Dr. Franklin has had plenty of time to relearn everything. The circumstances of her disappearance and reappearance drove the plot more so than the impending robots from outer space, who spend much of the book standing around. I am okay with that decision. As a reader, I care more about the mysterious Chinese food enthusiast than I do about more robot fighting. Also, Dr. Franklin takes on a more active role in pursuing who the Narrator is and where he comes from.
The Narrator shines in this second book. Waking Gods carries on the epistolary format of a nameless government agent walking around recording everything related to Themis, but we see some of his more human side. At one point, he walks Dr. Franklin through how and why he manipulates people the way he does. He and Vincent actually become friends in this book. The Narrator exposes a fascinating chunk of his failure-fueled backstory to Dr. Franklin. However, he does stretch disbelief sometimes. The aforementioned murder scene jarred like a squeaky violin. The squirrels bit, while utterly amusing, almost seems too irrelevant. His incredible backstory makes me want a prequel.
Vincent and Kara’s celebrity marriage could create tense drama, but Waking Gods chooses not to scratch that itch. Instead, Vincent and Kara have a child who goes missing, which causes Kara to put her mission to save the world on hold to rescue her. The epistolary style trips the story here, because it fails to provide the details and suspenseful scenes that make that side plot interesting. While perhaps cliché, a rescue mission would have given the audience time with Kara, but instead the ignorance of the Narrator about her location removes her from the book for far too long.
Fans of the first book will love the sequel. As mentioned, Themis gets out and mixes it up with other robots. Neuvel does not pull punches on the enormous robot sections of his novel. It reads like it would make an awesome comic book. Neuvel poses similar questions to those from Sleeping Giants, about the status of mankind in the universe and if we really have accomplished enough as a species to be noticed by superior beings. Furthermore, Waking Gods sprints. The action carries the writing along fast enough that readers who have a spare weekend this summer should find themselves without anything to read by Sunday morning.
Three stars out of five, but I’m still pre-ordering Neuvel’s next book.