2014’s Zero Sum Game, the first volume in the Russell’s Attic series by S. L. Huang (1), is a superhero novel of sorts. If protagonist Cas Russell were a member of the classic-era Legion of Superheroes, her place at the table would have the placard “super-math.” Except, to be honest, while her ability to carry out highly complex applied mathematical calculations is impressive enough to qualify as a bona fide superpower, the LSH would probably bar her from membership on the basis of the trail of bodies she leaves behind her. In fact, a neutral observer might be more inclined to classify Cas as something more along the lines of a supervillain.
Cas might disagree about the supervillain or she might not; her habit of drinking herself stupid between assignments hints that all is not well with her. Good or bad, one thing on which others would agree is that she and her peculiar skills are for hire.
The book opens with Cas in the middle of a retrieval mission gone sour, with Cas tied to a chair as a cartel mook beats on her. What she knows, and all but one of the supposed cartel members do not know, is that not only do her stupendous math skills allow her to judge exactly how far she needs to move to avoid most of the blows without making what she is doing obvious, but the man beating her is a ringer, her sociopathic and extremely scary pal Rio.
Long story short, Cas escapes with Courtney Polk, the woman she came to retrieve, in tow, leaving death in her wake. The cartel will have to ask HR to look for a couple dozen new hires. Cas’ math skills also give her absurd precision in aiming blows, as well as allowing her to calculate just how to get the most lethal effect for the least effort. And there’s no Mathematician’s Oath stopping her from wholesale slaughter.
The rescuee, Courtney, is a young nobody, some idiot loser who managed to get both cops and cartel angry at her. She wouldn’t be worth Cas’s time if Courtney didn’t have her very concerned and well-to-do sister Dawna looking out for her. Or at least, that’s what Cas was told.
- Courtney has a wide variety of scary people looking for her. The cops and heavily armed cartel goons are actually the least of her worries.
- Dawna told Cas she was secretly given a heads-up by Rio that her sister was a prisoner of the Colombian cartel. When Cas gets a chance to compare notes with Rio, this turns out to be a total lie; Rio wouldn’t have endangered his mission to save one young fool. Rio, though he hews to a strict moral code of his own devising, is also a monster who wouldn’t have bothered about the insignificant Courtney. Not only does this mean someone knows about Cas’s connection to Rio, they had to have known Rio was undercover in the cartel.
- Asking her friend Anton to use his computer skills to do some sleuthing gets Anton and his daughter killed in an over-the-top display of force almost immediately.
- Courtney doesn’t actually have a sister named Dawna, concerned or otherwise. Courtney thinks she does, though, and as far as Courtney knows, Courtney is not lying.
Cas has one mysterious word — Pithica — as a clue to unraveling the mystery. She also has unexpected allies in the form of Arthur Tresting, an ex-cop turned private investigator, and his hacker buddy, Checker; her pal Rio; and of course she has her own genuinely superhuman abilities.
If only someone had warned her that she was up against a group of paramilitary paranoiacs, as well as an organization that spans nations and a woman whose own superpowers, powers of empathy and persuasion, are as impressive as Cas’ mathematical skills. These powers also happen to be skills against which Cas has no resistance whatsoever.
If only someone had warned her about this woman before Cas sat down to talk to her, face to very convincing face.
If only the evidence didn’t increasingly point to Cas being one of the baddies.
I don’t know the origin story of this book, but it wouldn’t surprise me if it began with the author trying to work out what plausible (or at least not obviously physically impossible) superpowers would look like. The two characters whose abilities qualify them for a colourful spandex jumper aren’t doing anything regular people can’t do. They just do it far far better than any human should be able to do.
(Although there do seem to be moments when Cas appears to live in a purely Newtonian universe, one whose clockmaker isn’t going to screw up Cas’s pretty equations with uncertainties. As in quantum mechanics.)
Normally, being the sort of person who complains about the swathe of collateral damage James Bond leaves in his wake , I wouldn’t be all that interested in spending time with Cas, whose willingness to resort to lethal attack is remarkable. I also generally don’t care for characters like Rio, who falls into a class of supporting characters I call the Convenient Sociopath Pal, the guy who can be counted upon to do the bad bad things the author wants to happen but without dirtying the protagonist’s hands; Spenser’s pal Hawk would be a prime example: someone who, unlike the protagonist, will shoot a helpless unarmed man to wrap up the plot .
What rescues this novel from being just another story about violent, ultra-powered thugs carving their way through a world made of cardboard is that while Cas’s moral compass seems pretty unreliable, the author’s isn’t. The characters may be casually accepting of the snowballing death-count (Cas only seems to really mind when the dead are people she knew or kids, and their being kids isn’t enough to keep her from killing them) but the novel isn’t. The book makes it clear that for the average Angelino, having Cas and company square off against Pithica in LA offers all the benefits of a ring-side seat for the Battle of Stalingrad.
People continually ask Cas why she makes the terrible choices she does. While she and the reader don’t get a firm answer to that question in this novel, it does seem as if there is an answer to be had. We even learn enough about its general shape that the reader can guess that when Cas does eventually get her answer — and what’s the point of raising questions like that in an ongoing series if not to let the protagonist painfully struggle towards an answer? — it’s not going to make her happy.
Readers, however, will likely enjoy watching Cas’s ongoing education.
1: I wonder if the series title is an in-joke I am not getting.
2: For example, in the movie Goldeneye, Bond drives a tank through crowded Russian streets.
We see people scrambling out of their cars before the cars are totaled, but even if everyone managed to do that — which I kinda doubt they did — Bond clearly doesn’t care one way or the other if the people who got in his way survived. This is because as a Double O agent, Bond has as much reverence for life as Gary Leon Ridgway had.
3: If you want a nice example of the downside of having a casually murderous pal, you could do no better than to read any of Walter Mosley’s books in which the character Mouse puts in an appearance.
“If you didn’t want him dead, Easy, why did you leave him with *me*?”