Review: Land of the Headless by Adam Roberts

The Judge

Truth. Order. Moderation.
Staff member
Nov 10, 2008
nearly the New Forest

Land of the Headless is SF, published 2007 by Orion/Gollancz. Approx 275 pages in trade paperback.

The novel starts in very intriguing fashion, with the beheading of the first-person narrator for "adultery", an offence which includes consensual sex, a crime in a society governed by a holy book which is an amalgam of the Bible and Koran. However, the decapitation isn't fatal since Jon Cavala's mind has been downloaded into an apparatus in his spine which now controls his headless body; further devices allow him vision and hearing, and permit him to breathe and eat. Wanting to see his beloved again (she has avoided decapitation as Cavala claimed it was rape, casting her as an innocent victim not a guilty willing participant) he travels to her home town with two other headless men, together with Siuzan, a headed woman who is doing charity work for the headless, to whom Cavala is attracted because of her simple goodness. But when they reach the town, the men are arrested and told Siuzan has been raped by one of them en route, but since she refuses to name her assailant, she will herself be beheaded for adultery unless the guilty man confesses. Convinced of the guilt of one of the others, Cavala intends to kill the man, then claim he is himself the rapist -- which will mean his death -- in order to save Siuzan from the barbaric punishment. But circumstances and a callous police chief conspire against him. He is forced to volunteer for a military unit of the headless, and is sent to the front of a continuing war where he and his fellows are used as gun-fodder. While in the army he is racked with guilt and regret at his failure to save Siuzan, and when he eventually returns to civilian life he goes in search of her and her assailant to take revenge and make amends.

This technological resurrection of the otherwise dead-by-decapitation is vaunted as compassionate within Cavala's society, but as is made clear it's actually a living, breathing and walking deterrence to anyone who might challenge societal norms. Roberts doesn't skimp on detail about the consequences of living without a head as Cavala begins his new life, and though I'm nowhere near qualified to judge how feasible or otherwise his ideas are, I was convinced by it all. Those consequences are not only physical and emotional, since the headless are treated with contempt and worse by the headed, the prejudice aimed at them not simply because of the crimes -- adultery, murder and blasphemy -- which give rise to decapitation, but because they are looked on as less than human. Analogies with the life of non-whites, especially in the 1950s American South, abound. Yet, despite the intolerable repression caused by strict adherence to the Book and the hypocrisy of the authorities, Roberts shows the more virtuous characters as being steadfast and genuine believers; one has a short meditation on faith and the love of God, and there is a good bit of thought about the purpose of life.

This is a novel I admired rather than enjoyed. I never warmed to Cavala as a person, though his initial self-pity, arrogance and perpetual whingeing are lost as he undergoes the torments of headlessness, then military training and war, and he ends the novel a very different person. Also, not having read anything else by Roberts, I could never decide if the pompous and stilted prose -- very noticeable in everyone's rather unnatural dialogue -- was a consequence of the POV and an effort to show the formality of another culture, or just rather poor writing. The most interesting parts for me were the opening and closing quarters of the novel, as Cavala is first made headless and has to learn to live in a different way, ignored and abused, and then at the end when he finds Siuzan and redemption, with a late twist in the story which was needed to lift the plot. However, the middle section -- a good half of the novel -- deals with Cavala's military life, the training, the battles in which he's involved, and immediate aftermath. Important as those aspects are to show his gaining in moral authority and stature, and in giving him skills and technology needed at the denouement, I don't know it needed to be dealt with at such length. More importantly, despite continual references to her, it takes the focus away from Siuzan and his guilt-- supposedly the reason Cavala is writing about all that has happened -- and the plight of the headless generally. But though I wasn't as interested in that middle section, it contained a lot of drama and action, which would no doubt appeal to other readers.

Overall, a clever and well-considered SF, and an interesting and thought-provoking read.
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Nov 6, 2008
This sounds pretty interesting. I have read a couple of Adam Robert's books and they were all pretty good.

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