Book Review: Head On by John Scalzi

I’m not a huge science fiction reader–I mostly stick to space opera or planetary romance types of books within the genre–but I found myself reading Lock In by John Scalzi a while back and really enjoying it. So I was genuinely excited when I heard that a follow up novel was coming out this year and picked it up on audio once it was released.

Head On continues to follow our main protagonist, Agent Chris Shane, still sort of a rookie agent for the FBI, and their partner, Agent Vann, as they solve federal crimes together.

From Goodreads:

Hilketa is a frenetic and violent pastime where players attack each other with swords and ho-coverhammers. 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.

The pacing of Head On is great and the main plot is introduced pretty quickly. From there it’s one thing after another as our agents travel around interviewing different people of interest, barely escaping burning buildings, and rescuing cats. (A quick aside, as a cat person I greatly enjoyed all of cat portions of the book! It’s great to see John ‘writing from life’. :D) It’s a fast read and even on audio I think it only took me a little over a day to get through.

The author manages to pack a good deal of social observations into the book without it feeling weighty at all or it taking away from the fun of the story, which is something that requires a deft hand. I think it helps that there is a lot of humor in the novel, both the laugh out loud kind and the wry observation kind of humor. This helps keep the tone surprisingly light for a plot that revolves around a murder and a violent gladiatorial type sport. I really enjoyed a particular line (I won’t quote so as not to spoil a laugh for anyone) about a bullet and a forehead, which had to have been on purpose, but either way made me laugh far more than a line about someone being shot in the head should have done. Kudos, Scalzi. Kudos.

I like a lot of urban fantasy and also mystery novels, so honestly Head On ended up being a natural fit for my reading tastes. It’s near-future science fiction, but these are essentially police procedural novels set around solving murders. If you like that aspect of UF or if you like mysteries, you might want to give these books a try even if science fiction isn’t normally your thing. 4/5 stars.

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