Zero Sum Game by S.L. Huang: A Healthy Dose of SF Peanut Butter in this Thriller’s Chocolate Results in a Very Tasty Book

Zero Sum GameZero Sum Game

by S.L. Huang
Series: Cas Russell, #1

Hardcover, 334 pg.
Tor Books, 2018
Read: October 22 – 26, 2018

           “I’m really good at math,” I said. Too good. “That’s all.”

I’m not sure how many times I stopped reading this book to ask, “What did I just read?” Not because I’m too dense to comprehend the words on the pages, but Huang’s work was so audacious, so confident, so imaginative that i couldn’t believe it.

Cas Russell retrieves things — all sorts of things. We don’t get details, but it’s safe to say that things like legalities, procedures and technicalities don’t enter into her Cas’ thinking. When this book opens, she’s retrieving a person — which is not typical for her, nor that easy. But Cas does it, but before she returns that person to her family, she goes the extra mile to keep the retrieved person safe (she doesn’t want to have to get her again).

This ends up plunging Cas into a world of deceit, conspiracies, secret organizations, and some of the most mind-bending situations I can remember reading.

Here’s what separates Cas from most of the action/suspense heroes we have today — that line above about being good at math. She’s some sort of genius — maybe beyond that — at math. She looks at a situation — say, getting punched in the face — and while the fist is coming at her, calculates things (velocity, force, angles) rapidly enough to know how to adjust herself to lessen the blow and the injury to herself minimal and how best to counter the attack in such a way to put down her opponent. The same goes for shooting someone, using a knife, jumping into a building, etc., etc. The math is everywhere — but Huang deals with it in such a way that even an English major like myself can see it, appreciate it, and not get put off by it.

I’m not sure that makes sense. Let me try this — I don’t know if you watched the recent Luc Besson movie, Lucy, where Scarlett Johansson plays some sort of hyper-intelligent woman who is a near-unstoppable one-woman army, it’s kind of like that — but more successful. Or maybe think Bradley Cooper in Limitless, but without the pills.

Throw that kind of thing into a gritty, twisty world of damaged PI’s, hackers, dubious government agencies and drug cartels — and you’ve got an idea about what this book holds. It’s a little SF, it’s a lot of Thriller — an action-packed winner. I don’t want to talk more about it — the characters other than Cas are fascinating. I’d be more than happy to spend more time with all of them — there’s a very mysterious figure named Rio that I really want to know a whole lot more about, but I think I prefer not knowing — he works so well wrapped in mystery. This would’ve been a fantastic stand-alone, but I’m excited to see that this is listed as the first in a series. Sign me up for a handful of these right now.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book — it all worked wonderfully. There was one thing I cracked up at (it was funny, character revealing and oh-so-original) and when I made a note about it, I noticed that I was on page 69. I’ve never tried the Page 69 Challenge, where you decide whether to read a new book based on reading that page first, because that just seems annoying. But if I’d tried it with Zero Sum Game, it’d have worked for me.

For a first-time novelist (especially one with a math degree), Huang delivers a fantastic, assured read that’s almost sure to please. Give it a shot and you’ll see why I struggled to explain why you want to read this, while thinking that you really should.


4 Stars

2018 Library Love Challenge

5 thoughts on “Zero Sum Game by S.L. Huang: A Healthy Dose of SF Peanut Butter in this Thriller’s Chocolate Results in a Very Tasty Book

  1. Just so you know, this was originally released back in ’14. I’m guessing he polished it up and re-released it. Or rewrote it wholesale is my cynical guess.
    But from your reaction, whatever he did, he did it correctly this time.


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