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Head On – John Scalzi

“I almost missing see Duane Chapman die.”

Hilketa is the fastest growing sport in the country and it’s easy to understand why. Mixing football with brutal gladiator combat, the object of the game is to rip the head off a designated opposing player and then carry or throw it through a goal to score points. Duane Chapman is not the best player for the Boston Bays. But when his head is torn off three times in one game something happens to Chapman that has never occurred before in Hilketa: he dies.

Like 8 million other people, Chapman has Haden’s Syndrome, a disease that causes the victim to be locked inside their own body. You can breathe and feel and think but you can’t move. There is no cure for the disease but Hadens, as they are known, are able to inhabit robotic bodies called “threeps” and a virtual space called the Agora. This allows them to live mostly normal lives in society including having jobs like regular people.

Chris Shane is a Haden working in the FBI Haden related crimes division. Shane and his* partner, Leslie Vann, are called in to investigate the death. Then one of their suspects turns up dead. Then another. Soon its evident that not only is there something rotten in the sport of Hilketa but someone is willing to do anything to keep that secret safe.

Head On is the 2nd book in John Scalzi’s series that began with Lock In but it is a stand alone story and no prior knowledge is needed to enjoy it. Coming to the series new myself It took me a few pages to understand the premise but once I was on board I was in all the way. Head On is a powerhouse sci-fi/thriller the likes of which don’t come along very often. Scalzi uses the central concept of Hadens and explores it in ways that make this near-future world seem absolutely real. The characters are all well rounded, the dialogue is witty and fast paced, and the mystery itself is immensely satisfying.

The highlight of the novel for me was the exploration of what it means to be a Haden and the changes that have occurred in our world because of the disease. Chris Shane has an advantage most Hadens don’t. His father is an ex basketball star turned financial mastermind and his mother is a CEO. Through his eyes we see what it is like to be a Haden blessed with the means to provide for round the clock caretaking of his body, and what almost every other Haden has to contend with. Threeps are expensive, maintenance of the Agora is expensive, and a recent bill that passed in Congress removing most assistance to Hadens has made many of them desperate. This desperation provides an undercurrent of tension to the story that I am interested to see if Scalzi explores more if the series continues.

The relationship between Chris and his partner, Vann, is central to the novel. Vann is the senior agent and acts as a mentor to Chris. She is a smoker who gets incredibly irritable without a nicotine fix, a whip smart investigator, and absolutely brooks no fools. She is a grouchy, irritable delight and the scenes where she obliterates a witness or dresses down senior agents are so good you will want to read them twice.

I’m planning to grab Scalzi’s first novel in the Shane/Vann series as soon as possible. I tore through Head On in 3 days, reading it at lunch and late in to the night hooked in very quickly with “just one more chapter” syndrome that only the best books can bring out in a reader. For anyone that loves a good mystery/thriller and either likes sci-fi or is willing to give it a try I heartily recommend Head On. It is a great thriller and an exhilarating ride from page 1.

 

*NOTE: Chris Shane’s actual gender is not revealed during the novel. I’m using “he” for this review because I need pronouns so I don’t have to use “Chris” or “Shane” every time I refer to the character. However full disclosure, I didn’t realize Chris isn’t given a gender until I read another review on the book. Because Head On is told from Shane’s first person perspective the only pronoun Chris uses is “I”. But the more I think about the novel and the personality of Shane the more I think that the character may be a woman. This rather brilliant omission of gender identity is just one more layer to this terrific book.

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