There are so many interesting aspects to this book, it's hard to know where to begin. Let's start with the fact that Zero Sum Game was listed in Crimereads as a one of eight "crossover" thrillers, because it combines science fiction and fantasy. Or that it was originally published in 2014 under a creative commons license. In fact, the whole series was. Which is good, because once you've read the first one, now re-published by Tor, you will be eager for the rest.
The heroine of the series is Cas Russell, a "geek's Jack Reacher." She's "scary good" at math, so scary good that it goes beyond the level of Sherlock Holmes' genius. She uses her math skills to win fights, plot escapes, solve problems. Her skill is so extreme that it is actually a superpower, making this story a crossover thriller-fantasy.
A good hero requires a good villain, and if the hero has a superpower, so must the antagonist. In this case Cas is up against someone who can reach directly into people’s minds and twist their brains into Moebius strips. Someone intent on becoming the world’s puppet master. How can Cas win when she doesn't know who to trust? When she doesn't even know for sure what she knows? When she doesn't know which of her thoughts are her own anymore?
In spite of her math abilities, Cas doesn't seem to be very good at money management, so she takes on any and all jobs when a saner person would run. In this story she rescues a hostage from a drug cartel, and then agrees to help this hostage "get her life back," a much harder task than disappearing and re-inventing oneself.
The task is one that confronts Cas herself as well: too much of herself has been set aside or locked down. Her only friend (the guy punching her in the face in the first chapter) is her friend because he is a sociopath, even if he is one of the good guys. Girl, can't you do better than that?
There was a sad moment for me early on in the book when a very promising pair of characters who were on Cas's team were.... let's say, removed from the picture. I knew I'd become a fan of the series when I wanted to write to SL Huang and tell her to change that outcome. Bring them back! It's fantasy/sci-fi, so it's possible, right?
I trusted one person in the entire world.
He was currently punching me in the face.
Overlapping numbers scuttled across Rio’s fist as it rocketed toward me, their values scrambling madly, the calculations doing themselves before my eyes. He wasn’t pulling his punch at all, the bastard. I saw exactly how it would hit and that the force would fracture my jaw.
Well. If I allowed it to.
Angles and forces. Vector sums. Easy. I pressed myself back against the chair I was tied to, bracing my wrists against the ropes, and tilted my head a hair less than the distance I needed to turn the punch into a love tap. Instead of letting Rio break my jaw, I let him split my lip open.
The impact snapped my head back, and blood poured into my mouth, choking me. I coughed and spat on the cement floor. Goddammit.
“Sixteen men,” said a contemptuous voice in accented English from a few paces in front of me, “against one ugly little girl. How? Who are you?”
“Nineteen,” I corrected, the word hitching as I choked on my own blood. I was already regretting going for the split lip. “Check your perimeter again. I killed nineteen of your men.” And it would have been a lot more if Rio hadn’t appeared out of nowhere and clothes- lined me while I was distracted by the Colombians. Fucking son of a bitch. He was the one who’d gotten me this job; why hadn’t he told me he was undercover with the drug cartel?
The Colombian interrogating me inhaled sharply and jerked his head at one of his subordinates, who turned and loped out of the room. The remaining three drug runners stayed where they were, fingering Micro- Uzis with what they plainly thought were intimidating expressions.
Dumbasses. I worked my wrists against the rough cord behind my back—Rio had been the one to tie me up, and he had left me just enough play to squeeze out, if I had half a second. Numbers and vectors shot in all directions—from me to the Colombian in front of me, to his three lackwit subordinates, to Rio—a sixth sense of math- ematical interplay that existed somewhere between sight and feeling, masking the world with constant calculations and threatening to drown me in a sensory overload of data.
And telling me how to kill.
Forces. Movements. Response times. I could take down this idiot drug runner right now, the way he was blocking his boys’ line of fire— except that concentrating on the Colombians would give Rio the in- stant he needed to take me down. I was perfectly aware that he wasn’t about to break cover on my behalf.
“If you don’t tell me what I want to know, you will regret it. You see my dog?” The Colombian jerked his head at Rio. “If I let him loose on you, you will be crying for us to kill your own mother. And he will like making you scream. He—how do you say? It gives him a jolly.” He leaned forward with a sneer, bracing himself on the arms of the chair so his breath was hot against my face.
Well, now he’d officially pissed me off. I flicked my eyes up to Rio. He remained impassive, towering above me in his customary tan duster like some hardass Asian cowboy. Unbothered. The insults wouldn’t register with him.
But I didn’t care. People pissing on Rio made me want to put them in the ground, even though none of it mattered to him. Even though all of it was true
I relaxed my head back and then snapped it forward, driving my forehead directly into the Colombian’s nose with a terrific crunch.
He made a sound like an electrocuted donkey, squealing and snort- ing as he flailed backward, and then he groped around his back to come up with a boxy little machine pistol. I had time to think, Oh, shit, as he brought the gun up—but before firing, he gestured furiously at Rio to get out of the way, and in that instant the mathematics realigned and clicked into place and the probabilities blossomed into a split- second window.
Before Rio had taken his third step away, before the Colombian could pull his finger back on the trigger, I had squeezed my hands free of the ropes, and I dove to the side just as the gun went off with a roar of automatic fire. I spun in a crouch and shot a foot out against the metal chair, the kick perfectly timed to lever energy from my turn—angular momentum, linear momentum, bang. Sorry, Rio. The Colombian struggled to bring his stuttering gun around to track me, but I rocketed up to crash against him, trapping his arms and carry- ing us both to the floor in an arc calculated exactly to bring his line of fire across the far wall.
The man’s head cracked against the floor, his weapon falling from nerveless fingers and clattering against the cement. Without looking toward the side of the room, I already knew the other three men had slumped to the ground, cut down by their boss’s gun before they could get a shot off. Rio was out cold by the door, his forehead bleeding freely, the chair fallen next to him. Served him right for punching me in the face so many times.
The door burst open. Men shouted in Spanish, bringing Uzis and AKs around to bear.
Momentum, velocities, objects in motion. I saw the deadly trails of their bullets’ spray before they pulled the triggers, spinning lines of movement and force that filled my senses, turning the room into a kaleidoscope of whirling vector diagrams
The guns started barking, and I ran at the wall and jumped
I hit the window at the exact angle I needed to avoid being sliced open, but the glass still jarred when it shattered, the noise right by my ear and somehow more deafening than the gunfire. My shoulder smacked into the hard-packed ground outside and I rolled to my feet, running before I was all the way upright.
This compound had its own mini-army. The smartest move would be to make tracks out of here sooner rather than later, but I’d broken in here on a job, dammit, and I wouldn’t get paid if I didn’t finish it. The setting sun sent tall shadows slicing between the buildings.
I skidded up to a metal utility shed and slammed the sliding door back. My current headache of a job, also known as Courtney Polk, scrabbled back as much as she could while handcuffed to a pipe be- fore she recognized me and glowered. I’d locked her in here tempo- rarily when the Colombians had started closing in.
I picked up the key to the cuffs from where I’d dropped it in the dust by the door and freed her. “Time to skedaddle.”
“Get away from me,” she hissed, flinching back. I caught one of her arms and twisted, and Polk winced.
“I am having a very bad day,” I said. “If you don’t stay quiet, I will knock you unconscious and carry you out of here. Do you understand?”
She glared at me.
I twisted a fraction of an inch more, about three degrees shy of popping her shoulder out of the socket.
“All right already!” She tried to spit the words, but her voice climbed at the end, pitched with pain.
I let her go. “Come on.”
Polk was all gangly arms and legs and looked far too thin to have much endurance, but she was in better shape than she appeared, and we made it to the perimeter in less than three minutes. I pushed her down to crouch behind the corner of a building, my eyes roving for the best way out, troop movements becoming vectors, numbers stretching and exploding against the fence. Calculations spun through my brain in infinite combinations. We were going to make it.
And then a shape rose up, skulking between two buildings, zig- zagging to stalk us—a black man, tall and lean and handsome, in a leather jacket. His badge wasn’t visible, but it didn’t need to be; the way he moved told me everything I needed to know. He stood out like a cop in a compound full of drug runners.
I started to grab Polk, but it was too late. The cop whipped around and looked up, meeting my eyes from fifty feet away, and knew he was made
He was fast. We’d scarcely locked eyes and his hand was inside his jacket in a blur.
My boot flicked out and hit a rock.
From the cop’s perspective, it must have looked like the worst kind of evil luck. He’d barely gotten his hand inside his coat when my foot- flicked missile rocketed out of nowhere and smacked him in the fore- head. His head snapped back, and he listed to the side and collapsed.
God bless Newton’s laws of motion. Polk recoiled. “What the hell was that!”
“That was a cop,” I snapped. Five minutes with this kid and my irritation was already at its limit.
“What? Then why did you—he could have helped us!”
I resisted the urge to smack her. “You’re a drug smuggler.” “Not on purpose!”
“Yeah, because that makes a difference. I don’t think the authorities are going to care that the Colombians weren’t too happy with you any- more. You don’t know enough to gamble on flipping on your crew, so you’re going to a very faraway island after this. Now shut up.” The pe- rimeter was within sprinting distance now, and rocks would work for the compound’s guards as well. I scooped up a few, my hands instantly reading their masses. Projectile motion: my height, their heights, the acceleration of gravity, and a quick correction for air resistance—and then pick the right initial velocity so that the deceleration of such a mass against a human skull would provide the correct force to drop a grown man.
One, two, three. The guards tumbled into well-armed heaps on the ground.
Polk made a choking sound and stumbled back from me a couple of steps. I rolled my eyes, grabbed her by one thin wrist, and hauled.
Less than a minute later, we were driving safely away from the com- pound in a stolen Jeep, the rich purple of the California desert night falling around us and the lights and shouts from an increasingly agi- tated drug cartel dwindling in the distance. I took a few zigs and zags through the desert scrub to put off anyone trying to follow us, but I was pretty sure the Colombians were still chasing their own tails. Sure enough, soon we were speeding alone through the desert and the dark- ness. I kept the running lights off just in case, leaving the moonlight and mathematical extrapolation to outline the rocks and brush as we bumped along. I wasn’t worried about crashing. Cars are only forces in motion.
In the open Jeep, the cuts on my face stung as the wind whipped by, and annoyance rolled through me as the adrenaline receded. This job—I’d thought it would be a cakewalk. Polk’s sister had been the one to hire me, and she had told me Rio had cold-contacted her and strongly suggested that if she didn’t pay me to get her sister out, she’d never see her again. I hadn’t talked to Rio myself in months—not until he’d used me as his personal punching bag today—but I could connect the dots: Rio had been working undercover, seen Polk, decided she deserved to be rescued, and thrown me the gig. Of course, I was grate- ful for the work, but I wished I had known Rio was undercover with the cartel in the first place. I cursed the bad luck that had made us run into him—the Colombians never would have caught me on their own. In the passenger seat, Polk braced herself unhappily against the jounces of our off-road journey. “I’m not movingto a desert island,”she said suddenly, interrupting the quiet of the night.
I sighed. “I didn’t say desert. And it doesn’t even have to be an island. We can probably stash you in rural Argentina or something.” She crossed her spindly arms, hugging herself against the night’s chill. “Whatever. I’m not going. I’m not going to let the cartel win.” I resisted the urge to crash the Jeep on purpose. Not that I had much to crash it into out here, but I could have managed. The correct angle against one of those little scrub bushes . . .
“You do realize they’re not the only ones who want a piece of you right? In case our lovely drug-running friends neglected to tell you before they dumped you in a basement, the authorities are scouring California for you. Narcotics trafficking and murder, I hear. What, were all the cool kids doing it?”
She winced away, hunching into herself. “I swear I didn’t know they were using the shipments to smuggle drugs. I only called my boss when I got stopped because that’s what they told us to do. It’s not my fault.”
Yeah, yeah. Her sister had tearfully shown me a copy of the po- lice report—driver stopped for running a light, drugs found, more gang members who’d shown up and shot the cops, taking back the truck and driver both. The report had heavily implicated Courtney in every way.
When she’d hired me, Dawna Polk had insisted her sister wouldn’t have hurt a fly. Personally, I hadn’t particularly cared if the girl was guilty or not. A job was a job.
“Look, I only want to get paid,” I said. “If your sister says you can throw your life away and go to prison, that’s A-okay with me.”
“I was just a driver,” Courtney insisted. “I never looked to see what was in the back. They can’t say I’m responsible.”
“If you think that, you’re an idiot.”
“I’d rather the police have me than you anyway!” she shot back. “At least with the cops I know I have rights! And they’re not some sort of freaky weird feng shui killers!”
She flinched back into herself, biting her lip. Probably wondering if she’d said too much. If I was going to go “feng shui” on her, too.
I took a deep breath. “My name is Cas Russell. I do retrieval. It means I get things back for people. That’s my job.” I swallowed. “Your sister really did hire me to get you out, okay? I’m not going to hurt you.”
“You locked me up again.”
“Only so you’d stay put until I could come back for you,” I tried to assure her.
Courtney’s arms were still crossed, and she’d started worrying her lip with her teeth. “And what about all that other stuff you did?” she asked finally. “With the cartel guards, and the stones, and that cop . . .”
I scanned the constellations and steered the Jeep eastward, aiming to intersect the highway. The stars burned into my eyes, their alti- tudes, azimuths, and apparent magnitudes appearing in my mind as if stenciled in the sky behind each bright, burning pinprick. A satel- lite puttered into view, and its timing told me its height above Earth and its orbital velocity.
“I’m really good at math,” I said. Too good. “That’s all.”
Polk snorted as if I were putting her on, but then her face knitted in a frown, and I felt her staring at me in the darkness. Oh, hell. I like it better when my clients hire me to retrieve inanimate objects. People are so annoying.
By morning, my madly circuitous route had brought us only half- way back to LA. Switching cars twice and drastically changing direction three times might not have been strictly necessary, but it made my paranoid self feel better.
The desert night had turned cold; fortunately, we were now in a junky old station wagon instead of the open Jeep, though the car’s heater managed only a thin stream of lukewarm air. Polk had her bony knees hunched up in front of her and had buried her face against them. She hadn’t spoken in hours.
I was grateful. This job had had enough monkey wrenches already without needing to explain myself to an ungrateful child every other minute.
Polk sat up as we drove into the rising sun. “You said you do retrieval.”
“Yeah,” I said.
“You get things back for people.” “That’s what ‘retrieval’ means.”
“I want to hire you.” Her youthful face was set in stubborn lines.
Great. She was lucky I wasn’t choosy about my clientele. And that I needed another job after this one. “What for?”
“I want my life back.”
“Uh, your sister’s already paying me for that,” I reminded her. “But hey, you can pay me twice if you want. I won’t complain.”
“No. I mean I don’t want to go flying off to Argentina. I want my life back.”
“Wait, you’re asking me to steal you back a clean record?” This girl didn’t know what reality was. “Kid, that’s not—”“I’ve got money,” she interrupted. Her eyes dropped to her knees. “I got paid really well, for someone who drove a delivery truck.”
I snorted. “What are the going rates for being a drug mule these days?”
“I don’t care what you think of me,” said Polk, though red was creeping up her neck and across her cheeks. She ducked her head, letting her frizzy ponytail fall across her face. “People make mistakes, you know.”
Yeah. Cry me a river. I ignored the voice in my head telling me I should take the fucking job anyway. “Saving the unfortunate isn’t really my bag. Sorry, kid.”
“Will you at least think about it? And stop calling me ‘kid.’ I’m twenty-three.”
She looked about eighteen, wide-eyed and gullible and wet behind the ears. But then, I guess I can’t judge; people still assumed I was a teenager sometimes, and in reality I was barely older than Courtney. Of course, age can be measured in more ways than years. Sometimes I had to pull a .45 in people’s faces to remind them of that.
I remembered with a pang that my best 1911 had been lost back at the compound when I was captured. Dammit. Dawna was going to get that in her expense list.
“So? Are you thinking about it?”
“I was thinking about my favorite gun.”
“You don’t have to be so mean all the time,” Courtney mumbled into her knees. “I know I need help, okay? That’s why I asked.”
Oh, fuck. Courtney Polk was a headache and a half, and clearing the names of idiot kids who got mixed up with drug cartels wasn’t in my job description. I’d been very much looking forward to dumping her on her sister’s doorstep and driving away.
Though that small voice in the back of my head kept whispering:
Drive away where?
I didn’t have any gigs lined up after I finished this contract. I don’t do too well when I’m not working.
Yeah, right. Between jobs you’re a fucking mess.
I slammed the voice away again and concentrated on the money.
I like money. “Just how much cash do you have?”
“You’ll do it?” Her face lit up, and her whole body straightened toward me. “Thank you! Really, thank you!”
I grumbled something not nearly as enthusiastic and revved the station wagon down the empty dawn freeway. Figuring out how to steal back s
meone’s reputation was not my idea of fun.
The voice in the back of my head laughed mockingly. Like you have the luxury of being choosy.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY
- Huang’s series starter will have readers anxiously awaiting the next…A fast-paced, darkly humorous read with a lot of heart for fans of action and urban fantasy, as well as lovers of Wolverine and other morally ambiguous, gritty superheroes with a mysterious past—Booklist, STARRED review
- This hard-to-put-down, action-packed SF debut is intelligent and entertaining. With Cas, Huang has created an indelible, flawed character who makes mathematics seem almost magical—Library Journal, STARRED review
- Cas is an awesome antiheroine, sympathetic despite her practical approach to violence, and her abilities make this book exciting, nasty fun…an excellent harbinger for books to come—Kirkus Reviews
WHERE TO FIND IT
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
SL Huang is an Amazon-bestselling author who justifies her MIT degree by using it to write eccentric mathematical superhero fiction. Her debut novel, Zero Sum Game, came out from Tor in 2018, and her short fiction has sold to Analog, Nature, and The Best American Science Fiction & Fantasy 2016. She is also a Hollywood stuntwoman and firearms expert, where she’s appeared on shows such as “Battlestar Galactica” and “Raising Hope” and worked with actors such as Sean Patrick Flanery, Jason Momoa, and Danny Glover. She currently lives in Tokyo. Follow her online at www.slhuang.com or on Twitter as @sl_huang.
CONTACT THE AUTHOR
FEARLESS BLOGGER TOUR
This blog is part of a tour organized by the International Thriller Writer's Association FEARLESS BLOGGER tour. The Fearless Bloggers were created by Alison McMahan to help new thriller writers who were members of ITW promote their work. Blogs are written about new thrillers by thriller writers. All work is done on a volunteer basis.
Other blogs in this tour: