#RRSciFiMonth Book Review: Zero Sum Game by S.L. Huang
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 3.5 of 5 stars
Genre: Science Fiction, Thriller
Series: Book 1 of Russell’s Attic
Publisher: Tor Books (October 2, 2018)
Length: 336 pages
Zero Sum Game by S.L. Huang was a fast-paced and entertaining page-turner that put me in mind of a sci-fi blockbuster thriller. The story’s protagonist, a self-described retrieval specialist named Cas Russell, is a quick-witted and legitimate badass who is scarily good at what she does. People may hire her to do rough jobs like smash-and-grabs or hostage recovery, but her logical mind ensures she always has a plan. Her tremendous math skills and ability to calculate complex equations on the fly have helped her navigate through the worst dangers of her profession and made her a survivor.
Which is why Cas is thrown for a loop on her latest assignment when what should have been an easy rescue operation goes completely awry. Receiving a tip from her colleague Rio, our protagonist accepts a mission that takes her deep into the heart of drug cartel territory to find and retrieve a young woman named Courtney Polk. The problem, however, is that Courtney’s sister, the one who is paying Cas for the job, isn’t in fact who she claims to be at all. Before long, Cas finds herself entangled in web of conspiracy and lies involving a shadowy organization and its deranged telepathic leader who has designs on world domination.
My thoughts on the plot: fun, if not entirely cogent or deep. Both protagonist and antagonist are kind of hokey, though a blast to follow. I also like how the book does not take itself too seriously, which allows the reader to laugh at the corny jokes or overlook some of the story’s more absurd and farcical moments. There are a lot of cool ideas in in here, which made this one a quick and enjoyable read, even if there were parts that made me scratch my head or grit my teeth in frustration.
First, let’s start with the things I felt could have been improved. Like a lot of debuts, Zero Sum Game suffered from quite a few pacing issues. If I recall correctly, the book began as a self-published project before it was picked up by Tor for this second iteration, and throughout that process, I assume it went through a lot more polishing and editing. I was therefore a bit surprised at the clunkiness of some of the prose, as well as the awkward delivery of some of Cas’ more cringe-worthy lines. A lot of the times her internal dialogue felt like a messy stream of consciousness, spelling out every thought process and emotion, which really made it hard to concentrate on everything else happening in the plot.
Story-wise, this novel also falls squarely in the technothriller category. But with regards to the “techno” part of thet equation, I feel as though the author left things neither here nor there. She goes into a great deal of detail about certain mathematical or technological concepts, but overall worldbuilding feels pretty vague and undefined. On top of the sci-fi elements, there are also paranormal factors at play, but again, the why’s and how’s of it are not very well explained.
But here’s what I did like: the characters, despite their flaws, are compelling and memorable—especially Cas. Without giving away too much of the story, what our protagonist struggles with here is a conflict that rattles her to her core, because it threatens one of the only things she can count on: her mind. When someone who prides herself on her logic and intelligence is faced with the possibility that she can’t trust her own thoughts, the results are as interesting to read about as you would expect. Even the villain is impressive, their whole bent-on-taking-over-the-world angle notwithstanding. I liked how none of the characters were black and white, with the line between good and evil not only being blurred and uncertain, but redrawn again and again throughout the course of this tale.
All told, Zero Sum Game was a lot of fun to read, the story made even more intriguing by its bold and unforgettable characters as well as themes exploring topics like psychology, mind control, and futuristic tech. That said, I thought the novel’s full scope and potential was likely held back by minor issues like plot pacing and structural flaws. Nevertheless, it’s a solid debut and I think most sci-fi and thriller fans will enjoy it and appreciate it for what it is.