Headspace by J. D. Edwin is an intense, science-fiction thriller that pulls no punches. Her characters manage to be both flawed and lovable, making even the aliens deeply human. It took me a little while to get into this book, but once I was there I couldn’t put it down. I literally read the last half in one day.
Astra is a humble nobody with few family ties and lots of early-twenties angst. She’s more at home in her little library of books than talking with her awkward father. Then the great “orb” arrives and turns the world on its head, offering fame and fortune through unknown means simply by signing up through their website. Astra has no interest but her pregnant best friend, Hannah, who isn’t eligible because of her gravid state, enters her anyway. When the reality of the “Headspace” game is revealed as a deadly maze that’s more abattoir than game show, there’s global panic. The mysterious aliens promise that if no one survives the games, the world will be destroyed. When Astra is pulled into the games and becomes one of the first survivors, her whole life is turned upside down. Now instead of worrying about the end of the world, she’s responsible for helping prevent it with a small but soon close-knit group of contestants. Weaving in themes of loyalty and betrayal, racism, ableism, and celebrity, J. D. Edwin makes this fantastical scenario into a visceral and emotional rollercoaster.
The plot of “Headspace” feels like a combination of Battle Royal and the Hunger Games. With the emotionally detached Cheshire as glorified ringmaster of the games and the complicated politics of celebrity worship, I think both Harry Potter and Katniss Everdeen would feel at home in this fictional universe.
The ‘end of the world’ vibe was so accurate to the experiences of 2020’s COVID epidemic, I actually struggled to get into the story for the first few chapters because it kept triggering that emotional state. Once Astra was into the games, however, I was quickly swept up in the interpersonal conflicts and complexities of her fellow contestants. Once he finally becomes a person instead of an automaton, Eleven quickly steals the show as my favorite character. His humble yet ancient personality hit all the right notes for me.
The only complaint I had was how abruptly some of the romantic subplot came to a head. The scene where Eleven and Astra have their yelling match just didn’t read as convincingly as the rest of the dialogue.
Overall, I really enjoyed this read. J. D. Edwin came up with creative and chilling scenarios for the game rounds and I connected with all of her main characters. The highlight of the book for me was the “bonus round” which was brilliantly existential and reminded me of classic Twilight Zone. I definitely look forward to the next book by this author!