Review: “Null Set,” S.L. Huang

Pros: Fascinating premise and execution
Cons: Cliffhanger ending
Rating: 5 out of 5

S.L. Huang’s Null Set: A Cas Russell Novel is an excellent sequel to her Zero Sum Game. Both books are about Cas Russell, “a supernaturally mathematical retrieval specialist who [drinks] her way from one job to the next.” Thanks to teaming up with private investigator Arthur and his hacker friend Checker, she’s trying to fight crime. In particular, the group is going after human trafficker Pourdry, whose victims are children. But there’s no proof that Pourdry is related to any of the crimes, and it’s impossible to find the man himself. Also, ever since Cas and Arthur took down Pithica (which was using psychics and killers to force people into good behavior) the crime rate has gone up. By doing the “right thing” they’ve made everything worse. Cas becomes determined to find a one-size-fits-all solution to the crime in LA, and a piece of technology from a defunct corporation might just do the trick. It’s meant to counteract the brainwave-changing effects of groupthink, mob mentality, and peer pressure, which Cas hopes will free people who’ve been pushed into following crime syndicates and gangs. But isn’t this dangerously close to what Pithica was doing in the first place?

The real meat of this is the question of gray areas and what’s morally right or wrong. How is what Cas wants to do different from what Pithica wanted to do? Sure, she’s “just” freeing people from negative influences, but she’s still messing with their minds. And of course there’s the inevitable fact that something is bound to go wrong when you start messing with human minds. One of the things I love about these books is that there are no easy answers. From a certain point of view, the main characters are the bad guys. And yet, it isn’t that simple.

There’s another problem going on: Cas’s mind is coming apart at the seams. Dawna messed with her memories previously, and now her mysterious past is coming back, bit by bit. It’s causing Cas to black out at bad times. It’s also tearing her apart. This could very well kill her, and Cas can’t trust the mysterious man who has shown up and who says he can help her.

Rio is also back–the psychopathic quasi-friend of Cas’s–and he and Cas’s friends aren’t going to get along. Rio’s a danger to everyone, and he’s about to make LA even more dangerous for our heroes. I love Huang’s character-building. (Although even though Rio’s Asian, I keep mentally hearing his voice as a perfect Chris-Judge-as-Teal’c from Stargate.)

I still love Cas’s mathematical abilities and how she uses them. It’s so creative and delightful. It particularly makes for interesting action scenes.

I wish this volume hadn’t ended where it did. It feels like an emotional cliffhanger, and I just don’t enjoy cliffhangers. I do, however, plan to pick up the sequel when it comes out!

“You know, only you would assign yourself the problem ‘fight crime’ and then try to come up with a general solution.”

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