Half Life

by S.L. Huang

Cover image

Series: Russell's Attic #2
Publisher: S.L. Huang
Copyright: 2014
ISBN: 0-9960700-5-2
Format: Kindle
Pages: 314

This is an ebook, so metadata may be inaccurate or missing. See notes on ebooks for more information.

Buy at Powell's Books

This is a sequel to Zero Sum Game and the second book about Cas Russell, a mercenary superhero (in a world without the concept of superheroes) with preternatural ability to analyze anything about her surroundings with mathematics. While it reuses some personal relationships from the first book and makes a few references to the villains, it's a disconnected story. It would be possible to start here if you wanted to.

Cas is now in the strange and unexpected situation of having friends, and they're starting to complicate her life. First, Arthur has managed to trigger some unexpected storehouse of morals and gotten her to try to stop killing people on jobs. That conscience may have something to do with her willingness to take a job from an apparently crazy man who claims a corporation has stolen his daughter, a daughter who appears nowhere in any official records. And when her other friend, Checker, gets in trouble with the mob, Cas tries to protect him in her own inimitable way, which poses a serious risk of shortening her lifespan.

Even more than the first book, the story in Half Life is a mix of the slightly ridiculous world of superheroes with gritty (and bloody) danger. It features hit men, armed guards, lots of guns, and quite a lot of physical injury and blood. A nasty corporation that's obviously hiding serious secrets shares pages with the matriarch of a mob family who considers Checker sleeping with her daughter to be an abuse of her honor. The story eventually escalates into more outlandish bits of technology, an uncanny little girl, and a plot that would feel at home in a Batman comic. I like books that don't take themselves too seriously, but the contrast between the brutal treatment Cas struggles through and the outrageous mad scientist villain provokes a bit of cognitive whiplash.

That said, the villains of Half Life are neither as freakish nor as disturbing as those in Zero Sum Game, which I appreciated. Huang packs in several plot twists, some inobvious decisions and disagreements between Russell and her friends about appropriate strategy, and Cas's discovery that there are certain things she cares very strongly about other than money and having jobs. Cas goes from a barely moral, very dark hero in the first book to something closer to a very grumbly chaotic good who insists she's not as good as she actually is. It's a standard character type, but Huang does a good job with it.

Huang also adds a couple of supporting cast members in this book that I hope will stick around. Pilar starts as a receptionist at one of the companies Cas breaks into, and at first seems like she might be comic relief. But she ends up being considerably more competent than she first appears (or that she seems to realize); by the end of the book, I had a lot of respect for her. And Miri makes only a few appearances, but her unflappable attitude is a delight. I hope to see more of her.

The biggest drawback to this book for me is that Cas gets hurt a lot. At times, the story falls into one of the patterns of urban fantasy: the protagonist gets repeatedly beaten up and abused until they figure out what's going on, and spends most of the story up against impossible odds and feeling helpless. That's not a plot pattern I'm fond of. I don't enjoy reading about physical pain, and I had trouble at some points in the story with the constant feeling of dread. Parts of the book I read in short bursts, putting it aside to look at something else. But the sense of dread falls off towards the end of the book, as Cas figures out what's actually going on, and none of it is as horrible as it felt it could be. If you have a similar problem with some urban fantasy tropes, I think it's safe to stick with the story.

This was a fun story, but it doesn't develop much in the way of deeper themes in the series. There's essentially no Rio, no further discoveries about the villains of the first book, and no further details on what makes Cas tick or why she seems to be the only, or at least one of the few, super-powered people in this world. The advance publicity for the third book seems to indicate that's coming next. I'm curious enough now that I'll keep reading this series.

Recommended if you liked the first book. Half Life is very similar, but I think slightly better.

Followed by Root of Unity.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2015-09-21

Last modified and spun 2015-10-14