Review: “Zero Sum Game,” S.L. Huang

Pros: Adrenaline-packed, high-intrigue, snarky adventure
Cons: Didn’t go quite far enough
Rating: 5 out of 5

S.L. Huang’s Zero Sum Game (Cas Russell) is a delightfully sardonic thriller with some unusual characters and relationships. Cas Russell is a retrieval artist–people hire her, and she fetches things for them. She’s not above killing people who threaten her, and she has a supernatural skill with math that’s matched only by her reflexes and agility. She rescues Courtney Polk, a somewhat innocent drug mule who’s being held by a cartel, for Courtney’s sister Dawna. She sees an old friend of hers, Rio, undercover with the cartel, and manages not to blow his cover. On the way back to Los Angeles, a PI and ex-cop named Arthur Tresting tracks her down and asks her about something named “Pithica.” When she starts poking around to find out what that is, people start to die. It turns out that Cas isn’t the only one with an unusual ability–there’s a handful of people who are capable of a sort of form of telepathy, allowing them to read virtually anything in a person’s face, and influence a person’s behavior. The quandary: these people believe they’re doing everything they can to make the world a better place, and the ends justify the means. So how can Cas, Rio, Arthur, and Arthur’s hacker friend Checker fight back without doing worse damage? Or do they even want to fight back?

Nothing is black or white in here. Each character has their own moral boundaries, from Arthur, who at least would like to obey the law, to Rio, who’s a psychopathic killer who uses religion to guide his actions. Cas sees no problem with killing anyone who threatens her, but she still cares about people, in particular children. When she finds herself working with Arthur, she ends up questioning some of her moral assumptions. Rio was perhaps my favorite character. Is he on the good guys’ side? Is he a bad guy? Is he something altogether different? There are no easy answers to questions in here. It’s possible that by going after the people who are brainwashing others, our heroes will undo some of the good those people have done. So whose ends justify the means? No one’s innocent in this book. There’s some philosophizing and moralizing, but it never feels like the author is lecturing the reader–it’s just good characterization.

Yup, I’m that good at math: I can parallel park in Los Angeles.

My only (small) gripe is that I wanted to know more about Cas. We just barely scratch the surface of her past by the end, and it felt like that got cut off a little quickly. Certainly it’s going to be hard to wait to read the sequel, which comes out later this year (I already pre-ordered it–a little surprise gift for my future self). It was a little tough to believe how little Cas seemed to realize how not-normal she is.

Things do get a little bloody–content warning for the results of torture, plenty of fist-fights, and some shooting.

The depiction of Cas’s abilities is wonderful. The high-octane fight scenes are imaginative and bold. (Apparently the author is both a mathematician and a stunt woman, and she clearly brings both experiences to bear here!) It’s fascinating to watch how her mind tends to start eating itself when Cas doesn’t have anything to focus on. And the math isn’t always about bullets and acrobatics.

There is something beautiful about the high-speed math of a gunfight.

There’s intrigue, multiple large and dangerous organizations, the thrill of the chase, gunfights, and wonderful characters. What more could you want?

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