2020’s Critical Point is a third volume in S. L. Huang’s Russell’s Attic series.
If Cassandra “Cas” Russell were a member of the Legion of Super-Heroes, the little placard in front of her seat would read “Super-Mathematics.” Cas can perform and apply hypercomplex mental calculations at stupendous speed, a talent that she applies to everything from simple bookkeeping to acrobatics.
What Cas doesn’t have is a moral compass. She’s working hard to develop a functional substitute because she craves human contact. Not being an amoral monster appears to be a crucial step towards maintaining her rudimentary social life.
Her friends may need the monster in Cas.
Cas is astounded to discover that Tabitha, the young woman who wants to hire Cas to find her missing father, is the daughter of Cas’ best friend Arthur. Cas had no idea Arthur had a family at all. Still, the important thing is that Arthur is missing. The hurtful thing is that Arthur has concealed significant parts of his life from Cas. That thing will have to wait.
There could be an innocent explanation behind Arthur’s sudden absence. The explosion that destroys Cas’ brand-new office suggests that there isn’t. Whether or not Arthur is still alive is unclear. What is clear is that someone is running around the city intent on removing potential opponents. It’s not at all clear what the potential opponents would be opposing if they knew about it.
The disappearance and the bomb would be disturbing enough. It’s even more disturbing that whoever targeted Arthur and Cas has minions with special talents: functional invisibility and the ability to induce panic in all who see them. They’re also willing to damage or kill innocent bystanders.
Cas has no idea who took Arthur or why. She only knows that she must save her friend, even if it means using methods that her friend would not approve.
This is a third book in the Cas Russell series. 2015’s Root of Unity was also a third book in the series, back when it was self-published. Critical Pointisn’t a rewritten Root of Unity. Think of the series as branching after being acquired by Tor.
The Russell’s Attic series is essentially an attempt to develop a superhero universe in which special abilities are plausible. Cas can perform what might seem impossible stunts, but only because she can construct and evaluate physical models of the situation much faster than most humans can. Super-calculators are plausible. The invisible man and the walking horrors exploit cognitive peculiarities in the human brain. Also plausible; this is what sleight-of-hand magicians do.
It’s plausible that most of the abilities come with drawbacks. In most cases, the drawback is that the ability doesn’t come with an off-switch.
This series has a very noir take on super-heroics. Cas has only one constraint on her take-no-prisoners approach to conflict: she knows that her friends would disapprove of gratuitous violence and she wants to keep her friends. This makes her the good super-talent. Other such talents lack Cas’ self-imposed limits and will cheerfully target children when convenient. Nor is this setting a cozy one: there is no guarantee that the forces of chaos won’t eventually win.
Although I’d love to know why the author decided to rework the series at book three, the reworking didn’t keep me from enjoying this book. I am looking forward to the next installment in Cas’ continuing quest not to be a horrible person.