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Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Zero Sum Game by SL Huang (reviewed by Lukasz Przywoski)

Official Author Website
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AUTHOR INFORMATION: SL Huang justifies her MIT degree by using it to write eccentric mathematical superhero fiction. In real life, you can usually find her hanging upside down from the ceiling or stabbing people with swords. She is unhealthily opinionated at and on Twitter as @sl_huang.

OFFICIAL BOOK BLURB: Cas Russell is good at math. Scary good. The vector calculus blazing through her head lets her smash through armed men twice her size and dodge every bullet in a gunfight, and she'll take any job for the right price.

As far as Cas knows, she’s the only person around with a superpower...until she discovers someone with a power even more dangerous than her own. Someone who can reach directly into people’s minds and twist their brains into Moebius strips. Someone intent on becoming the world’s puppet master.

Cas should run, like she usually does, but for once she's involved. There’s only one problem...

She doesn’t know which of her thoughts are her own anymore.

CLASSIFICATION: Science fiction thriller.

FORMAT: Initially self-published by the author, Zero Sum Game was republished by Tor Books in October 2018. It's the first book in Cas Russell series. It's available in an e-book, paperback, and hardcover format. 

The book counts 329 pages


There is something beautiful about the high-speed math of a gunfight. I’ve heard other people opine that gunfights are confusing and disorienting, but to me, they always happen with perfect clarity: every bullet impact leads back to its source, every barrel sweeping through with its own exact trajectory.

Thanks to good teachers I fell in love with mathematics and geometry early in my life. There are art and thrill in reasoning, imagination and finding the truth. 

Zero Sum Game’s protagonist - Cas Russell is a weaponized mathematics genius and a kick-ass heroine with mild psychopathic tendencies. She literally equates her way out of impossible situations and devastates her opponents with preternatural ease and speed. It seems I have a new crush.

Cas is a loner and an outcast leaving off the grid as a retrieval expert. Human life doesn’t mean much to her, and she rarely hesitates to pull the trigger. She trusts only one person, Rio, an absolute and ruthless psychopath whose ability to be lethally effective borders on the unrealistic. 

Her latest job goes wrong. It turns a seemingly naïve drug mule Cas rescued from Colombians is part of a secret and well-connected organization, called Pithica. Despite the evident danger, Cas can’t help digging deeper into the case. Supported by Rio, irritatingly moral PI investigator and a brilliant computer-whiz she faces opponents with augmented psychic skills (telepathy). 

I have a soft spot for unlikable heroes with psychopathic tendencies. Add genius mind to the mix and I’m sold. Cas and Rio are a lethal, terrifying duo. Cas’s mind-bending math skills allow her to dodge bullets, eavesdrop through closed doors thanks to an in-depth understanding of sound waves properties, or jump from building to building through an armed window. People don’t understand her and she doesn’t function well in society. 

Rio is an unstoppable killing machine. He’s unable to experience normal human emotions. For unknown reasons the two trust each other on a visceral level. I hope SL Huang will explore their non-romantic, intriguing relationship in the sequels. 

Secondary characters felt entertaining and well rounded. That said, remember we’re talking about explosive, fast and over-the-top pulp read. Don’t expect these characters to be realistic. Unless you live in a much more interesting world than I.

I choose to turn a blind eye to its flaws - small inconsistencies, open ending, a ton of unanswered questions, cheesy moments directly out of an action B-movie. If such things irritate you Cas’s story will tire and disappoint you. If, however, you love explosive, hard-hitting and straightforward crime fiction with a supernatural twist try it.

CONCLUSION: I loved this book. It has it all. A kick-ass heroine with mild psychopathic tendencies and a genius mind. Mathematics. Preternatural skills. Conspiracies. Breakneck speed. Guns, mines, and grenades. 

Interesting fact Originally, the Cas Russell series (formerly Russell’s Attic series) was self-published by the author and consisted of four books and two short stories. Because of upcoming Tor re-release of the series only book 1 is available for purchase at the moment (with book two Null Set coming out in July). The republished version will differ from the source material on some levels.



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