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Head On - John Scalzi

John Scalzi returns with Head On, the standalone follow-up to the New York Times bestselling and critically acclaimed Lock In. Chilling near-future SF with the thrills of a gritty cop procedural, Head On brings Scalzi's trademark snappy dialogue and technological speculation to the future world of sports.

Hilketa is a frenetic and violent pastime where players attack each other with swords and hammers. The main goal of the game: obtain your opponent’s head and carry it through the goalposts. With flesh and bone bodies, a sport like this would be impossible. But all the players are “threeps,” robot-like bodies controlled by people with Haden’s Syndrome, so anything goes. No one gets hurt, but the brutality is real and the crowds love it.

Until a star athlete drops dead on the playing field.

Is it an accident or murder? FBI agents and Haden-related crime investigators, Chris Shane and Leslie Vann, are called in to uncover the truth―and in doing so travel to the darker side of the fast-growing sport of Hilketa, where fortunes are made or lost, and where players and owners do whatever it takes to win, on and off the field.

Review:

Dear John Scalzi,

I reviewed the first book in this series “Lock in” here at DA. I had no idea that you were planning to write a sequel, but I was eager to read more about Chris and Leslie’s adventures. I was even more excited when I read that the book would be set in the sport setting – I love those.  First and foremost, readers I have to warn you – do not expect a lot of actual games described on page.  Oh there was a long description of the game during which Duane Chapman died, but that was pretty much it.  It is not a criticism, the book was definitely set in the sport setting, but we are not seeing much of the actual games, a little bit here and there, but overall not much at all.  I just don’t want anybody else to develop the expectations that I developed after reading the blurb.

I am also not sure if I agree with the blurb characterizing this book as a *stand-alone* follow up to “Lock In”. I mean the murder investigation definitely stands alone, and I suppose the author recaps the world building sufficiently enough in order for the reader not to be confused, however I would still recommend reading “Lock in” first in order to get the world building fully.

We catch up with Chris when she is running late to watch the game with her parents because the Hilketa league really wants her father to invest in league’s upcoming Washington DC franchise.

"I ALMOST MISSED SEEING Duane Chapman die. I didn’t know it at the time. All I knew was that I was running late for the “special exhibition game experience” that I was supposed to be having along with my mother and father.”

Note that I will be using “she/her pronoun” in relation to Chris even though same as in the first book her gender is not mentioned. I believe that when I was reviewing “Lock In” I read somewhere that the author did it deliberately and Chris was meant to be a woman. I cannot be hundred percent sure that Chris was meant to be a woman, but even if her gender meant to be ambiguous, I think it is a fair game to imagine her or any character any way the reader wants. I am used to thinking about her as a woman by now.

Investment opportunity though quickly turns into a suspicious accident of Duane Chapman’s death and then certain irregularities that accompanied that “accident” quickly turned it into a murder and then multiple murders. Chris was already on the scene, so she and her partner Leslie Vann once again assume a lead on the investigation.

Murder investigation in this story was a very entertaining and fast moving affair. For me it was a little harder to guess the villain than in “Lock in”, although it was not very hard either. Once again though, maybe the author did not want to write a complex mystery, maybe the social commentary behind the suspenseful investigation was the main point of the book.  Chris and Leslie once again have to investigate the world of the big business that caters to Haden customers and how business had to adapt after Congress in the previous book passed “Abrams Catering” bill which cut a lot of medical and other services for people with Haden Syndrome.

I really liked Chris’ voice – just as snappy and funny as it was in the first book. There is also a cat in this book that couple of times gets thrown right in the middle of action.

"Then Donut the cat came out of the twins’ room and meowed down the stairs, as if to say, What the actual fuck, humans? The tank threep lashed out, knocking me and Tayla off balance, and lurched up the stairs toward Donut. Donut took one look at the rampaging tank and bolted, running in the direction of my room at the far end of the upstairs. I righted myself and took off up the stairs after the tank, grabbing at its legs."

 

As much as I liked Chris’ voice and enjoyed her partner not mincing words either, I was more than a little disappointed because I did not feel that any of them got any character development in comparison with the first book. Chris is a POV character, we are in her head all the time, I expected some character growth and besides her getting more comfortable in her job I honestly did not think I got much.

Grade: B-/B