The Headhunters Race, by Kimberly Afe

The Headhunters Race Cover - SMALL imageA teen in a place she doesn’t want to be, kept there against her will. A society existing after some devastating event, but governed by a corrupt leader. A deadly contest, where the teen’s life hangs in the balance numerous times. All the while, she wants to take down the leader.

That generalized plot synopsis may sound like many other YA dystopian tales, but the specifics of The Headhunters Race by Kimberly Afe make it a hidden gem among the genre, and one that I highly recommend.

Our protagonist is sixteen-year-old Avene, and she starts the story in prison for a crime she didn’t commit. There are many others in prison—people of all ages—and some of them are just as innocent as Avene is. The prison is overseen by Governor King, who happens to be Avene’s stepfather. Her mother was apparently murdered by Avene’s stepbrother (King’s son) Gavin, who’s out there somewhere.

King allows the prisoners to enter the titular race to win freedom if they bring back the head of his guilty son. Gavin is supposedly hiding out in a community across the territory where cannibals dwell. Using the race to escape from prison won’t work, as the runners wear collars that slowly constrict around their necks as the days go on—a gripping “ticking clock” element in the story. Returning in time without Gavin gets a consolation prize: an upgrade into the “leisure prison.” It’s still prison, and Avene won’t settle for being a runner-up.

She wants to win the race. She wants to avenge her mother’s death, not only by confronting the boy who caused it but by killing him and his father, who she also holds responsible.

She’s not randomly thrust into the situation. She’s not rebelling just to rebel. She wants revenge, and that revenge is motivated by the love of her mother. I learned in my writing courses that whether a character is good or evil is a secondary character trait to having them truly care about something. How can a reader be expected to be interested in a character who isn’t passionate about something? Avene wants answers and revenge, and I’m immediately interested in her and her story.

The race is treacherous, the terrain is difficult, there’s the threat of cannibals, and once Avene is revealed as King’s stepdaughter, there may even be a target on her own head. There’s nothing in the rules against killing other racers; everyone’s hunting, and any chance to eliminate competition increases the chance of winning. Fortunately, Avene has the assistance of a fellow racer named McCoy, and they develop feelings for each other. But can he be trusted? After all, every racer wants to win. Does he have ulterior motives?

Kimberly Afe tells the story in present tense from Avene’s point of view, and it’s an excellent choice because it immerses the reader in the action as it unfolds. Also, it prevents the reader from knowing everything that’s going on. I’m stressing this point because it plays into my appreciation of the ending of the novel.

This is a spoiler-free review, so I won’t reveal if Avene succeeds in any of her objectives, but the ending caused my jaw to drop. I love it when a new piece of plot or character development makes me rethink everything that has come before it. The Headhunters Race has that kind of ending. It’s a big game-changer for the world of this book series as I thought I understood it, and it leaves me with such tremendous anticipation for the sequel.

Because of its well-developed protagonist with clear motives, a tight and tense plot with gripping twists and turns, and strong narrative choices, I give The Headhunters Race by Kimberly Afe FIVE STARS. It’s a must read, especially if you enjoy the genre.

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The Headhunters Race is available at Amazon.

Read the spotlight of author Kimberly Afe HERE.

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