Zero Sum Game
published in 2014
If it wasn’t for her blogging about the renewed SFWA controversies back in January, I would never have heard of SL Huang or Zero Sum Game, her first novel. She’s not the first author I bought books from on the strength of their online writing. I knew Jo Walton and Charlie Stross as Usenet posters before I’d read their fiction and Ian Sales as a blogger before I read his Apollo Quartet books. It’s of course not guaranteed that somebody who’s a good blogger or poster is also a good fiction writer, but so far I haven’t been disappointed.
Zero Sum Game opens with its heroine tied down to a chair watching the fist of Rio, the one man in the whole world she trust coming at her face hard and fast enough to break her jaw. As she watches, lines of force, numbers and probabilities dance before her eyes, giving her a way to take the blow without getting more damage than a split lip. Barely a minute later she sees a way in which she can free herself, kill the four Columbian mobsters in the room and knockout Rio, all while evading the thugs’ gunfire, and takes it, escaping just as more thugs come barreling in. Jumping through the only outside window calculated in such a way as to not get herself torn to pieces, shen then doubles back to get the woman she needed to rescue from the gang, knocks out the guards outside with perfectly aimed rocks thrown to their foreheads and escapes in a hotwired jeep. All in a day’s work for Cas Russell, math savant extraordinaire.
Of course it quickly turns out that this isn’t a normal day’s work, otherwise there wouldn’t be much of a story. It soon turns out neither Courtney Polk, the woman she was hired to rescue, nor Dawnea, Courtney’s sister are quite who they said they are, but much worrying than that is how easily Cas believed Dawnea in the first place and how much effort it costs her to stop doing so. What started as a quick extraction turns into a nightmare in which at least two parties are hunting Cas, at least one wanting her dead and her only ally, apart from her psychopathic friend Rio, is Anton, an ex-cop turned detective who’s too noble for his own good.
Zero Sum Game is a fast paced action story, which never stands quite still enough to let the reader ask difficult questions. It takes skill to do this, more skill to convincingly show Cas Russell’s math skills in action. Cas can calculate the flightpath of every bullet in a firefight instantaneously, then move fast enough to not be where they will end up, she can sees how to jump through a plate glass window in such a way as to not get cut to death, able to pluck business cards out of the air without looking; she’s basically a superhero. Superheroes are easy to do in comics, not so much in text and it takes a good writer to write believable, fast paced and compelling action scenes for them. SL Huang manages to do so very well:
Specular reflection. Angles of incidence. Perfect. As long as the cop wasn’t going to fire blind, I had him. Hands still raised in the air in apparent surrender, I twitched my left wrist.
At the speed of light, the glint of sunlight came in through the window, hit the bathroom mirror, and reflected in a tight beam from the polished face of my wristwatch right into the cop’s eyes.
He moved fast, blinking and ducking his head away, but I moved faster. I dodged to the side as I dove in, my right hand swinging out to take the gun off line. My fingers wrapped around his wrist and I yanked, the numbers whirling and settling to give me the perfect fulcrum as I leveraged off my grasp on his gun hand to leap upward and give him a spinning knee to the side of the head.
But just writing action scenes well doesn’t a good novel make. While the plot itself is basically an action movie, complete with supervillain, where Huang really shines is in her portrayal of Cas. Cas is not a well woman emotionally, not a well woman at all, but it takes time for you as the reader to realise this, as she doesn’t realise this herself, or doesn’t allow herself to recognise this. At first she just seems supremely confident and capable, her mathemagical abilities giving her the upper hand in almost every situation. It’s when those are challenged, when the manipulations of Dawnae Polk makes her doubt them for the first time in her life, that she starts to doubt herself.
The other thing that’s started to make her doubt herself is Anton, the detective not turned love interest and thank god for that, because how often do you get a story like this where the heroine doesn’t fall in love with her sidekick but instead is just grateful to start a friendship? Before she met him and started to care for him she knew she was bad at dealing with people and their emotions, but she didn’t mind it, didn’t mind what they thought of her, but now she does. And that’s almost as scary as having her mind altered against her will.
Zero Sum Game isn’t perfect — there are times when it feels more like a movie script or television treatment than a novel, but it is a hugely entertaining story, one that made me eager to read on. Go buy.