The Headlock of Destiny is unique, and clever, and fun, and enjoyable, with a lovable cast of characters that draw you in to a zany concept that ends up being more epic than you expect. That admittedly long and winding sentence is the best way I could come up with to express my enjoyment of Samuel Gately latest. Created as a sort of mashup of pro wrestling and epic fantasy, the story begins personally, grounded in the main character, Van. But it expands rapidly without every losing that personal grounding. In the end, it's a lot of fun.
The Headlock of Destiny has its greatest strength in its main character. Van is a titan, the descendants of giants, titans are twice as tall as normal humans and ten times as strong. Most titans fight in matches throughout the regions, and the best of the best travel to the titular Headlock of Destiny tournament to be crowned the champion. Each nation brings a single titan to the tournament, and as such the politics of the various nations run through the tournament, wins in the ring give diplomats social capital to use in their negotiations. Through a series of mishaps, Van - who begins the book as a worker at a brewery - ends up competing in the Headlock. Van is a misfit, a loveable misfit, and an underdog to boot. If you enjoy those tropes, you're going to love this book. There is a heroic quality to Van that we get to see develop throughout the story and I appreciated his arc very much. There are elements of a coming-of-age tale here, but it's more than that as well. The book never takes itself too seriously, with mishaps and comedy aplenty. The world building is another element that I enjoyed. Gately fleshes out a society obsessed with the Headlock and the titans who fight in it, and many of those fights offer moments where you want to pump your own fist into the air. The side characters also shine, playing important roles in Van's development but also feeling like they have stories of their own, even if we aren't seeing those stories fully in this book. There are also moments where you catch glimpses of the overarching, epic story and those moments are wonderful. There's more going on here than meets the eye, and working to figure that out is a ton of fun. This is a story for people who like heroes. That's what we're watching Van grow into, and there are moments in this novel where Van truly steps into those shoes and acts as a hero. Those moments were so incredibly satisfying I can recommend this book on their strength alone.
For me, the largest weakness is that eventually the ring matches begins to take on a somewhat repetitive and predictable tone. Gately goes to great lengths to keep them fresh, but even so there are moments when they did begin to feel repetitive. I also felt that the relationship of the tournament to the politics of the world was a little vague, at least in terms of specific mechanisms. But then, I'm not sure how one goes into those specific mechanisms without boring those who would be less interested. Of these two, I found the first two to be the larger issue for my enjoyment. It's still a wonderful story, and I really enjoyed it, but it would have been nice to feel like the fights played out with less of an established pattern.
The Headlock of Destiny is such a unique tale. It's too much to say that it's lighthearted - there are certainly emotional beats and moments of pain and struggle. But it is an uplifting story that has its genesis in a zany concept. I enjoyed it and can't wait for the sequel. It's a fun read, add it to your TBR.
Review by Calvin Park
The Headlock of Destiny
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