Review: Zero Sum Game by S.L. Huang

zero sum game

I’ve been looking forward to reading Zero Sum Game, the first book in the Russell’s Attic series, since I first heard people talking about it on the Internet. I was intrigued both by the premise of a protagonist whose superpower is math and the fact that S.L. Huang has committed to self-publishing this book and all its sequels using a Creative Commons license.

Also the cover. The cover was particularly alluring.

“I’m good at math.” That’s how Cass Russell likes to explain her abilities. What she means (and doesn’t say) is that she sees all the different composites of the world as numbers and equations. The velocity and angle of a bullet, the speed of someone’s punch, the leverage needed to climb a building—all this and more makes Cass one of the most effective and dangerous people in the criminal world. Cass doesn’t ask questions, so long as she gets paid. Her latest job—rescuing a young woman kidnapped by the drug cartels—should have been an open-and-shut case. Instead she’s caught up in a conspiracy. Somewhere out there is a shadow organization named Pithica, and they want to use her. Not only can Pithica’s top agent read minds, but she can control thoughts, causing people to believe whatever she wants them to. After Cas ends up on the wrong end of this agent’s powers, she swears to do whatever it takes to bring Pithica down once and for all. The question is—how do you fool a mind-reader who can pick up information from the tiniest motions of your face? Who can twist your thoughts so you don’t even notice when you’re being manipulated?

Zero Sum Game is a wild ride. It’s a solid thriller, something I wasn’t expecting but ultimately ended up enjoying. From the very beginning and barely stopping until the end, Cass is in the thick of things, fighting her way out of trouble, into trouble, uncovering information, and putting together plans to take down Pithica. Oddly enough, despite the story’s overall fast pace, the first part seemed to drag in comparison. Having read the back cover, I knew going in that Cass’ enemy could control minds. My prior knowledge meant that much of the set-up required for Cass to realize someone had tampered with her memories felt extraneous and bogged down the narrative. Basically this problem boils down to a marketing/back cover copy issue.

Cass is in many ways your average badass. She’s a loner with a mysterious past, an authority problem, a frighteningly high kill-rate, a smart mouth, and a drinking problem when she’s not on the job. Her closest “friend” is a psychopath and violent sadist named Rio who Cass knows better than to call a friend, but trusts completely. Ostensibly she’s a cliché; on paper, Cass feels very real. A lot of that has to do with her math powers—S.L. Huang graduated from M.I.T. and knows her math every which way, which means Cass does too. Her abilities are superbly rendered and felt incredibly realistic in their execution. One of my favorite details about her abilities is their brutal cost. When not distracted by a job, all the numbers and equations Cass sees in everything she lays eyes on overwhelm her, until all of her sense are reduced to numbers, numbers, and more numbers. That one detail goes a long way towards helping to understand why Cass lives a quintessential anti-hero lifestyle. I was irked by the lack of insight into Cass’ past, but now having finished the book, I’m more comfortable with the prospect of her mysterious past becoming a slow-burning plot arc over the next few books.

Additionally, Cass isn’t infallible, and she’s just as susceptible to the Pithica agent’s mind-warping as anyone. For the first time, Cass has to put her trust in people she’s only just met, and who don’t entirely trust her either. Arthur Tresting, Cass’ main partner, is a former cop-turned-PI, an honest man whose investigation of Pithica for a civilian client put him right in Cass’ path. At heart, he’s a decent man who takes issue with Cass’ casual attitude towards the lives she takes, and an even bigger issue with Rio, and Cass’ trust in him. Checkers, Arthur’s tech guy and resident hacker, rounds out the foursome. His wisecracks and banter provide the book’s few moments of levity, which made him my second-favorite character. His comparative innocence towards violence was also a nice contrast towards the other three.

Who’s my favorite character then? I’m not going to lie—it’s Rio. I’m intrigued by Rio’s code of conduct, in which he serves as God’s instrument of vengeance, dispensing his (terrifying, obscene) sentencing only to those who deserve it. I also love the way he delivers all his lines in his cool, unfazed manner, yet responds super literally to Cass, Arthur, and Checkers’ exaggeration and snark.

“I know what you are,” spat Tresting. “Would’ve done the world a favor to blow your goddamn head off.”

“I would prefer it,” said Rio, “if you did not take the Lord’s name in vain. Particularly when speaking of blowing off heads. It seems a poor choice for your soul.”

The contrast of his capacity for violence with his calm, judgy manner is what brings him down to earth for me. Rio coolly telling Cass to stay out of trouble is his equivalent of acting like a full-blown mother hen, and it’s adorable, in a scary kind of way.

Aside from the off pacing in the first half, my main issue with the book is Cass’ moments of doubt over whether Pithica is her enemy or not. Ostensibly, Pithica’s goal is to create a future free of inequality, oppression, and violence. Pithica’s mind-controlling agent attempts to persuade Cass of Pithica’s humanitarian goals—that Pithica has an ~obligation~ to use its power and resources to invasively guide the actions of world leaders and criminals in order to make the world a more peaceful, safer place. The narrative indicates that Cass is swayed not just because she’s being mind-controlled, but also because the agent’s arguments are logical. Even Rio says later that the agent used logical arguments because Cass responds to logic. Except, Pithica’s arguments are nowhere near logical—they brainwash innocent people, they have more soldiers and weapons than a given nation’s military, and they have no problem killing anyone who obstructs them or even suspects Pithica’s existence. But the book is three-quarters over before Cass and Tresting conclude that Pithica is indeed evil, humanitarian goals side, because they are an violent, obscenely powerful organization that robs people of their free will. No shit, Sherlock!

I was also not a fan of the book’s resolution, which somehow managed to feel simultaneously open-ended and neatly tied up. I can’t reveal much more without spoilers, so all I’ll say is that if Pithica doesn’t come back in later books as an adversary, or even as a another player on the board, I’m going to be annoyed.

All in all, I had a lot of fun reading Zero Sum Game. It’s an action-packed superhero thriller (I use the world “superhero” very loosely here) with an original superpower whose parameters provide near limitless opportunities for Cass to take advantage of the physical world around her. The plot itself was reasonably compelling (aside from its more questionable moments of execution. Lastly, I grew to appreciate the tentative bonds Cass has established with Tresting and Checkers by the end of the book, not to mention her ongoing mysterious connection with Rio. S.L. Huang is a confident writer (which I already knew from having read her short stories on The Book Smugglers), and it shows here in how she remains in control of this aggressive, action-packed story the entire way through.

As of now, there are three other books in the Russell’s Attic series, also self-published under Creative Commons, but only available as ebooks. I do not own an ereader, nor do I enjoy reading longer works of fiction on screens (though I am planning on reading Nnedi Okorafor’s novella Binti very soon, so maybe I can change my mind.) The lack of immediate physical copies of the next few books means it’ll definitely be a while before I get around to reading them. But I do want to.

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