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Wrong Train, Right Time ([personal profile] wrongtrainrighttime) wrote2017-05-16 08:36 pm

Zero Sum Game by SL Huang

Huang, SL. Zero Sum Game. Self-published, 2014. eBook.

Zero Sum Game is about Cas Russell, a deadly mercenary whose superhuman facility with visualizing and manipulating math allows her to fight with deadly, effortless precision against enemies that outnumber and outgun her. A routine job leads her to get tangled with a shadowy secret society guided by the first other person she's ever met with a superpower: an honest-to-god telepath with designs on saving the world from itself. They've already tangled once, leaving Cas confused about her own thoughts...and she's not about to let it slide.

As this description of mine suggests, Zero Sum Game is non-stop action. It is exactly like an action movie in book form, and it's great. Cas is a terrifying force of nature and her hypercompetence at her vocation makes me swoon. The mathematical conceit is woven in really well, too. It's very clear that it's her facility with mathematics that makes Cas so deadly and terrifying, and Huang does an excellent job of translating mathematics into the understanding of the physical world and its moving objects that makes Cas such a force of nature.

Huang describes Cas' mathematical perception and visualization so wonderfully, too. I could absolutely see those scenes playing out with a healthy layer of CGI and judiciously applied slo-mo. The Zero Sum Game movie in my mind was amazing. This isn't a slam against the book; I just bring this up to emphasize: this book? An action movie in prose. I am genuinely impressed at how well Huang manages to pastiche an inherently visual genre with no more than words.

The pastiche extends to the characters. Cas is an over-the-top person who associates with over-the-top people, a fitting action movie milieu. The snarky hacker. The good guy in over his head. The terrifying sadist psychopath. The smooth, well-dressed villain. Oh man, the villain! Huang sketches out her personality SO well and makes her SO genuinely terrifying, while maintaining that action-movie-perfect aura of genteel power.

This isn't quite a standalone movie; it's wall-to-wall action, but also clearly set up to to be the first of several novels. The sequel set-up is done really subtly. The one action movie trope that Cas misses is the tortured backstory, and it's not until the climax where Cas' complete lack of disclosure about ANY part of her backstory is slammed into the foreground and you realize it was missing all along. And then it all gets wrapped up into a plot hook for the subsequent books. For a book that's an action movie, the plotting has a slyness to it that I deeply appreciate.

If I have some critique, it's that some of the other main cast fell a bit flat for me. I get what Huang was aiming for with Rio, but he still felt a little too over-the-top violent, and the end result was a sense of flatness. Then again, he seems like a hard character to get to know from the outside, so I'm glad to see that he gets an POV in one of the series short stories. I like Arthur Tresting as a contrast to Rio and foil to Cas, but I also felt sort of...frustrated with him at points. And I'm sort of chewing at how Huang handled his character, which at times struck me oddly. I liked Checker well enough, but he hasn't quite escaped generic-ness for me. Then again, I knew this was a series when I got into it, so I expect there'll be more to come about them. I am intrigued by how Tresting and Checker became friends. I think some more focus on them would fix my issues.

Overall, a really good and fun read, with a unique take on the action hero trope. The sequels (there are at least three and one more on the way!) are going on my wishlist.