The Headlock of Destiny by Samuel Gately – Book Review
Neither beer nor wrestling appeal to me, so why on Earth did I have so much fun with The Headlock of Destiny, a book about—what else but wrestling and beer? And it’s not your average quantities of beer either; nor are the contestants in this eponymous tournament your normal wrestlers. No, this is a fantasy novel we’re talking about: Why have average human beings wrestle when you can have titans? These titans are mighty indeed, known as ten-men, their physical prowess making yours and mine about as significant as that of the fly you’ll swat at and forget five heartbeats later. Though, between you and I, it might be the beer-drinking that the titans do well enough for ten men; and the one who excels at this admirable task most is our protagonist, brewery worker Van, soon to be known as Van, The Beer Man.
Van has spent his entire life trying to make himself look smaller—an impossible task for a titan, and one he has paid for. The folks of the Uplands, where he grew up, ostracize him when they even remember he’s there. His only friend and love interest is wed to his bully and boss, Alec, at his place of employment, the brewery and carrying barrels full of beer is no one’s idea of a life well lived. For all that, it’s familiar, it’s what Van has known all his life, so when an impromptu meeting with Kyle promises a chance at change, he’s less than thrilled. Kyle is first presented as a scout searching for new talent to represent the Uplands in the Headlock of Destiny; in fact she’s a lot more than first catches the eye. Her relationship with Van pushes the story forwards and draws unexpected qualities from both herself and the titan, while avoiding clichéd one-note romance.
No one save Kyle—least of all Van—expects that the green titan will make it past the qualifier round squaring off against another Uplands titan, The Living Portrait. So naturally Van kicks the living crap out of the Portrait and makes it onto the tournament by which nation-states triumph or fall into ruin. It’s a nifty idea, using fantasy wrestling as the engine through which to enact world-shaping political change, and not one I can claim I’ve seen before. The Headlock is one of those indie fantasy novels that earns no small amount of respect for treading new ground in the genre.
The wrestling matches between these titans make for engaging action sequences and Gately succeeds in differentiating each; the way each of the titans squares off against Van is an extent of the author’s characterizations, fitting perfectly with their portrayals in dialogue and description. The supporting cast is memorable, especially some of the friendly titans Van meets along the way, and the antagonists are easy to dislike, if a little more two-dimensional than some might enjoy. There’s more going on than the Tournament, too, and the novel ends on what a lesser reviewer would call a literal cliff-hanger. Me, I’d never lower myself to such wordplay.
There’s more than enough here for those of you who are looking for a fantasy read that steps outside many of the usual fantasy elements and embraces the tropes of a wholly different medium—making the Headlock of Destiny a novel first chapter in a series I have every intention of exploring further.