Zero Sum Game

by S.L. Huang

Cover image

Series: Russell's Attic #1
Publisher: S.L. Huang
Copyright: 2014
ISBN: 0-9960700-1-X
Format: Kindle
Pages: 326

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Cas Russell finds things for people, often involving some strategic violence. She belongs to that genre of action novel protagonists who have a rough code of ethics, but who don't exactly follow the law. Her friend Rio is much worse: a functioning sociopath with his own code of ethics, the derivation of which is a key plot point. When the book opens, Cas is on a mission to find a person and rescue them from a drug cartel — not her normal mission, but her contact said she was referred by Rio. Oh, and Rio is currently hitting her in the face.

This setup matches any number of present-day thrillers. The SFnal twist is that Cas is very good at numbers, in a completely unrealistic action hero way. (I found it unsurprising that Huang was inspired by the superhero genre; that's the right model to have in mind when reading about Cas.) She can calculate where bullets are going to go, knows just the right angle and velocity with which to throw things (and, even more notably, can get her body to do that), and, in one particularly memorable scene, sets up an eavesdropping sound concentrator by changing the angles of available random surfaces in the neighborhood, like trash cans. This ability is not without drawbacks. When she's not in a middle of a job, with something to focus on, she usually ends up drinking herself into a stupor to get her brain to stop working. But it's an extremely useful ability that requires the villains of this book go to great efforts to try to kill her.

The plot starts out as fairly typical thriller material, involving threats and dire consequences to those Cas loves (or at least likes a lot) and an unfolding sense that this retrieval of a kidnapped woman is the tip of a very deep iceberg. The expected counterpart, a private investigator with a less casual attitude towards killing than Cas, shows up early on. (Rio does not play that role in the story. His role is much more complex.) But the superhero inspirations show up in the villains as well, in a twist that many on-line summaries spoil, but which I will leave unmentioned.

Mostly, Zero Sum Game is a fast-moving story with lots of violence, lots of guns, shadowy conspiracies, and a hypercompetent protagonist. (Female, refreshingly, particularly since she doesn't fall in love with any of the other characters in the book.) It's a recipe for enjoyable brain candy, and I think that's the best attitude to bring to it. However, a couple of things set it apart for me.

First, Cas spends quite a bit of time really thinking about her life and questioning her decisions, rather than just blithely enjoying her world of stress and violence. There's more introspection here than in the typical thriller plot, but she stops short of wallowing in angst and stays decisive. I liked that balance: a bit of inner discomfort, and a few hard ethical decisions, but not to the point of paralyzing her.

Second, her relationship with Rio is something special. Rio himself is a character type that I've seen before in books like this, but I don't think I've seen the dynamic with a character like that handled this well before. I particularly liked that the focus of the book stayed on Cas, not on Rio, and the reader was encouraged to see that relationship as a reflection on Cas and her sense of internal ethics. Seeing Rio through Cas's eyes, and then seeing other characters react to him and react to their relationship, touched some chords that I really enjoyed reading.

Unfortunately, the villains weren't as successful, at least for me. Partly this is a personal quirk: the nature of the threat posed (not revealed for about half the book) is a kind that I dislike reading about. It makes my skin crawl in a way that I don't enjoy. But, even putting that aside, the story ends on a very odd and disturbing anti-climax. It's clearly the first book of an ongoing series, and I hope later books will salvage this. (I certainly liked it well enough to read on.) But the ending left me unsettled and rather irritated at the author. Huang plays fair, and the ending is consistent with what we know by the end of the book, but I read this sort of action-thriller story for catharsis and the glory of competent people doing what they do well.

I got deeply engrossed in this book and had a hard time putting it down. Both Cas and Rio are great characters, as are most of the supporting cast. I wish the ending wasn't quite as much of a letdown so that I could recommend it more strongly. But it's still a fun superhero thriller. If you're looking for something with unrealistic superpowers, a large helping of competence, and a high body count, this may be worth picking up.

(And no, I don't know what the series title means. I know what the series title refers to, but I haven't yet figured out what connection it or the Axiom of Choice has to the plot.)

Followed by Half Life.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2015-04-12

Last modified and spun 2015-09-22