RogerBW's Blog

Zero Sum Game, S L Huang 26 April 2021

2014 action/SF, first of a series. Cas Russell is a retriever of missing things in a world of action and adventure. Naturally, her latest job is going to get terribly complicated.

This series has a complicated publication history. This version that I read was self-published and released under cc-by-nc-sa-4.0, and was followed in the "Russell's Attic" series by Half Life, Root of Unity, Plastic Smile, and Golden Mean (which may not actually have been released). Then Tor picked it up and re-released this book in edited form under the same title, as the first of the "Cas Russell" series, followed so far by Null Set (a rewritten Plastic Smile) and Critical Point (a rewritten Golden Mean); books 2-3 of the original series are apparently slated for the same treatment at some point. But anyway, on with this book.

Cas has supreme mathematical ability: she can trivially work out where not to be in order to dodge bullets, casually toss a ball so that it'll bounce several times round a room and hit someone in the back of the head, or rearrange flat surfaces around a neighbourhood to make a parabolic microphone for eavesdropping. Clearly this power also needs supreme perception and muscular control, not to mention a complete lack of such mundane things as chaotic air motion, but one just has to accept this, particularly when it becomes time to define what it can't do. It feels rather more like a superhero-comic or television-series power than the sort of thing I usually read about, particularly the way Cas doesn't appear to know or care how she got this way.

Cas starts off rescuing a Californian nobody from a Colombian cartel, and things rapidly become twisty, with psychopathic allies (we're in what John Rogers called "Crime World" here, so nobody is entirely a good guy) and kindly enemies… and at least one more superpower. The action is decent, though Cas gets hurt a little too much for my personal taste; what there isn't is any real kind of resolution, either to the immediate threat (team evil is hurt but not out of the game, and each side will be leaving the other alone in future) or to the question of Cas's Mysterious Origins. There are considerations of mental integrity which warn me that there will be unreliable narration in the future, if it's not here already.

On the other hand Cas's narrative is an interesting place to be, particularly in her relationship with Rio, a sociopathic torturer who's found God and now only tortures bad people. (His reputation is bad enough that everyone else on team good is repelled by the idea that she might be working with him.)

I liked it, but I didn't love it. The moment-to-moment stuff is great, but I felt very much let down by framing and especially the ending; all of a sudden the narrative changes from a story that might be complete in itself to the pilot episode that introduces the series and sets up some of the long-term plot elements, but definitely wants the reader to tune in next week and find out what happens.

It's OK. I'll probably read more. But I'd recommend it only with caution, and say that you should stay clear if you don't like unexamined premises and incurious protagonists.

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