It’s rare for an author to maintain the sort of balancing act S. L. Huang pulls off with apparent ease in her debut novel, Zero Sum Game. It shifts back and forth between high-stakes thriller and thoughtful, literary-minded exploration of society, humanity, economics, and more, resulting in an inventive, intriguing genre piece about people with superhuman abilities inhabiting a very human world. Huang makes all of that work, and more, as she pushes her superhuman protagonist,
Cas Russell—mathematic fighter, extraction specialist, and all-around loner—comes to readers fully-formed. We meet her as the captive of a drug cartel, having been captured while on a mission to retrieve a woman used as a drug mule. In her testy interactions with her captors, we quickly get a picture of who she is: irritable, brilliant, and clever. See, there’s something about her no one else knows: she can see math. Or, to be precise, she views the world as a series of equations, and she’s always able to solve for the answer for what she needs. Gunfire? Simply vectors to aim, and vectors to avoid. Hand-to-hand combat? Velocity, angles, and force, my friend.
Cas, for all intents and purposes, is superhuman, and she is the only person like her that she knows of. She keeps her abilities, and her life, to herself, and lets almost no one in. Her only “friend” in the world is a killer named Rio, whose belief in God is pretty much the only thing holding him back from murdering… everyone. Otherwise, Cas is alone, and happier for it. But when things start to go pear-shaped with her current mission, and allies close to her begin to find themselves dead, she soon discovers there are larger forces working against her, and maybe even be someone special like her behind it all.
Huang hits the ground running in an action-packed opening, and barely lets up for the balance of the novel. When bullets aren’t whinging past Cas’s head, or she’s not running from a secret organization hell bent on her destruction, she’s engaged in spying missions, formulating plans, or on a stakeout. As she admits, Cas minus a job leads to a dark place, and Huang is always sure to keep her working. Huang builds an intriguing protagonist by letting her actions speak for her; brutal, efficient Cas is good at a lot of things, but not so great with people. As she finds herself working with new allies, the differences between them only serve to foreground Cas’s eccentricities, and force her to realize just how alone she’s always been. Her growth from stoic, destructive loner to someone willing to put her life on the line for total strangers proves a nice counterpoint to all the action.
Also enjoyable is the grounded and realistic world, regardless of the existence of superpowers in it. Huang crafts a realistic west coast world, and populates it with wonderful characters—Arthur, an older black man, a former cop turned PI; Checker, a wheelchair-bound hacker and engineer who has snark for days. The world feels diverse, lived in, and real, regardless of the equations flying past at the speed of thought. Even then, Cas’s abilities are grounded in reality; she can’t really do the impossible, but always has to rely on very real mathematics to get her out of trouble. If the villain is able to mess with someone’s brain, well, it’s an ability reliant on reading facial tics, judging micro-triggers, and exploiting natural emotional responses. Huang always makes sure to remind us that this is the real world, which keeps the stakes just as realistically high.
In the first of a planned series following Cas Russell, S. L. Huang has hit on something both satisfying and exhilarating: a thriller layered with science fictional concepts but set in a world that feels grounded. I’m looking forward to seeing her kick butt with math again, hopefully very soon.