Screamcatcher: Web World by Christy J. Breedlove: Get Caught Up in this YA Fantasy’s Web

Screamcatcher: Web WorldScreamcatcher: Web World

by Christy J. Breedlove
Series: Screamcatcher, #1


Kindle Edition, 218 pg.
Melange Books – Fire and Ice YA, 2019

Read: July 31, 2019

I don’t have a lot to say about this one, my views are pretty straightforward and most of the analysis I’d give would be spoiler-heavy, but I do want to try to say enough to entice someone (preferably a few someones) to read this satisfying YA Fantasy.

I really prefer to come up with my own synopses, but I’ve failed to think of a succinct way to give one for this book (well, I had one that was too succinct and was really unsatisfactory), so I’m just going to appropriate the official blurb:

           When seventeen-year-old Jory Pike cannot shake the hellish nightmares of her parent’s deaths, she turns to an old family heirloom, a dream catcher. Even though she’s half blood Chippewa, Jory thinks old Indian lore is so yesterday, but she’s willing to give it a try. However, the dream catcher has had its fill of nightmares from an ancient and violent past. After a sleepover party, and during one of Jory’s most horrific dream episodes, the dream catcher implodes, sucking Jory and her three friends into its own world of trapped nightmares. They’re in an alternate universe-locked inside of an insane web world. How can they find the center of the web, where all good things are allowed to pass?

I don’t pretend to have an extensive, much less exhaustive, familiarity with uses of Native American symbology, imagery, spirituality, or anything. But I’ve come across my share over the years, and I don’t remember anyone using the dreamcatcher in any significant way before. And I don’t know why — this is an awesome idea.

The first few pages (maybe the first chapter or so) were a little rough, and my expectations lowered a little bit. But once Breedlove had established the world and things started happening, the book became a lot more enjoyable and I got sucked right into it. Breedlove does a great job of balancing the fantastic elements of this dream world (I guess nightmare world would be closer to the truth) and reality to make it easy to understand, but still following a nightmare logic ad full of the stuff that dreams are made of (just without the statuary from Malta).

There was a love story that was established early on, and I really had no interest in it, but it eventually won me over and I started pulling for it. Making it on two fronts that Breedlove got me to invest in both the story and the characters when I wasn’t in any frame of mind to do so. I can’t tell you what ineffable quality there is to her writing that accomplishes that, but call it what you will, I like it when someone can do that.

There was a little suspense concerning the fate of some of Jory’s friends/companions, but by and large, you get the feeling early on just how things will turn out for almost all involved, the pleasure (for the reader, not the characters) is in the journey. There’s some self-discovery and personal growth to go with the monster fighting (fighting and/or avoiding).

It is written for a YA audience and certainly will appeal to that sensibility, but it can easily be entertaining for those of us with gray in our beards or on our heads (assuming there’s anything to gray). I’d like a little more depth to the primary characters, but that wasn’t in the cards, and it’s not like they’re not three-dimensional, I just think those dimensions could be a little deeper.

I did expect a lot more Native American imagery and myth (something akin to Riordan maybe, at least like Craig Johnson). I don’t think what we got was incompatible with it by any means, but it certainly wasn’t steeped in it. I’m not complaining, I don’t think the story needed it, but it might have made things a bit richer.

I don’t see how this leads to a sequel, in fact, I’d have thought it precluded one. But the end of the book tells me it’ll be available this year. Color me curious.

Imaginative and compelling with an unusual focus/motivating hook. For a fast, fun YA fantasy, Screamcatcher: Web World will satisfy.

Disclaimer: I received a copy of this novel from the author in exchange for this post, but I read it because I wanted to and the opinions expressed are my own and not influenced by the receipt of the novel.

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3.5 Stars

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Fletch Won (Audiobook) by Gregory McDonald, Dan John Miller: A Real Mixed Bag

Fletch Won (Audiobook)Fletch Won

by Gregory McDonald, Dan John Miller (Narrator)

Series: Fletch, #8 (#1 Chronologically)
Unabridged Audiobook, 6 hrs., 30 min.
Blackstone Audio, 2018

Read: June 20 – 26, 2019

This is chronologically the first Fletch novel, he’s a rookie reporter, who’s been bounced around from headline writer, to obituaries, to wedding announcements, and is finally sent to the Society pages—with a warning. Fit in, and don’t make any trouble or he’ll be unemployed. His first assignment is to meet with an attorney, Donald Habeck, in the publisher’s office to discuss a major donation he’ll be making to a local museum and do a puff piece about it. Fletch objects, wanting to do real news—the kind of stuff he’ll later be known for. His editor (Frank Jaffe, a name known to those who’ve read Fletch and Fletch and the Widow Bradley) refuses, insisting that this is his assignment—and maybe later he’ll get a chance to do something else.

There’s a catch—Habeck is murdered in the newspaper’s parking lot on his way to this meeting. Fletch jumps on the opportunity to report on this, but the senior crime reporter shoos him off (and Jaffe). Fletch tries to exercise squatter’s rights, but no one is having any of it. Naturally, this means that Fletch will ignore this and will investigate the murder on his own—and typically is a few steps ahead of both the police and the senior crime writer.

In the meantime, he has to do his actual job (at least until he has something he can print). There’s another story they want Fletch to work on, there’s a local “escort service” parading itself as a fitness establishment—Jaffe insists that Fletch do an expose about them. To stay employed, Fletch agrees—but threatens the most detailed and explicit expense report ever. This isn’t a story that appeals to Fletch—I don’t think he cares too much if this service is just close to prostitution, or if it’s the actual thing—and he has better things to do with his time. Also, he’s about to get married, the last thing his fiancé is going to want is him hanging around a brothel all day.

The opening chapter is a hoot. As are several of the encounters Fletch has with the members of Donald Habeck’s family (particularly his wife)—and Alston Chambers never fails to be amusing. The escort service story is fun, and ends up being the kind of thing that Fletch can write about—but its main purpose is to give Mcdonald an opportunity to opine on our cultural obsession with beauty, health, and so on, while causing problems for Fletch’s personal life. There’s not a lot of meat to this story, but there’s a lot of fun. On the other hand, the murder investigation is great and vintage Fletch. It’s the best part of the book (as a mystery novel, I guess it should be, right?)

All in all, a decent Fletch novel—full of interesting characters, a nice twist, Fletch bucking all sorts of authority (police, veteran reporters, Frank Jaffee), and more than a few amusing situations. It works as an origin story, how did he become the sort of reporter we know, etc. As I mentioned earlier, we even see young Alston Chambers — just starting as an associate in a powerful law firm. But—and this is a big but— this places Fletch at the newspaper we know he ends his newspaper career with as a rookie, as a man about to be married (for the first time). We know there’s not a lot of time between the end of his first marriage and Fletch, but there’s some. Enough for a second marriage and the Window Bradley events, but not much more. What there isn’t time for is the past referred to in Confess, Fletch, Fletch’s Fortune and even hinted at in The Man Who — and the first two of those depend on Fletch’s history to work. Unless we’re to believe that his wives let him leave the state, work in a variety of other papers, developing a Fletchian reputation, move back to the same paper he started his career in (with the same senior editor), and then hit him up for alimony and still be carrying a torch for him. It stretches credulity a bit too much for me to stomach. The next book, Fletch, Too, doesn’t help things.

Does that ruin Fletch Won for me? Not totally, but that alone keeps it out of my personal top-tier Fletch novels and rank it slightly above The Widow Bradley (only for the chuckles it gives me). Clearly, McDonald isn’t as picky about this sort of thing as many of his readers are, but man, that rankles. Still, it’s fun, it features entertaining characters— some odd poetry—and enough Fletchisms to keep you happy. It’s a good time, and if you ignore what it suggests about the rest of the series, you should have a good time.

—–

3.5 Stars
2019 Cloak & Dagger Challenge

The Whole Armor of God by Iain M. Duguid: An Encouraging and Devotional Look at a Famous (and oft Misunderstood) Passage

(slightly updated)

The Whole Armor of GodThe Whole Armor of God: How Christ’s Victory Strengthens Us for Spiritual Warfare

by Iain M. Duguid


eARC, 128 pg.
Crossway, 2019

Read: July 28, 2019

When I was in High School, it would’ve been easy to get the idea that the central defining pericope for the New Testament believer’s life was Ephesians 6:10-18 — thanks to Frank Peretti, Carmen, ETW, and the like. The idea was this is a call to arms — notably with a stirring call to victory — to stand against Satan’s schemes and wrestle with the spiritual forces. It’s a militant type of sanctification, and while well-intentioned, it’s sloppy exegesis and ignores too many other things that Paul, Peter, other apostles, and the rest of Scripture tell us about the struggle of faith and the slow work of repentance. Of course, that was a long time ago, and many of those names would be unfamiliar to people (especially contemporary high schoolers), but the ideas are not. I know that Duguid is familiar with this because he talks about it in Chapter 1, which was pretty encouraging, because I’d mentally drafted this paragraph before I started the book.

After that dash of synchronicity, Duguid goes on to describe the armor Paul is actually describing in the passage — the armor that God Himself wore into battle and now provides for His people to wear. The rest of the book is devoted to him showing how Christ’s work and benefits are depicted through this armor. He spends a chapter per piece of armor: The Belt of Truth, The Breastplate of Righteousness, Gospel Boots, The Shield of Faith, The Helmet of Salvation, The Sword of the Spirit and Praying Always. He traces the use of the imagery throughout Scripture, showing Paul’s lines of thought — primarily through the Psalms and Prophets. These are not new ideas that Paul introduces to the Ephesians, but part of the warp and woof of redemptive history.

Yes, frequently Duguid calls his readers to use the armor in ways similar to the abuses I mentioned above (abuses might be too strong a word in some cases, but I think it fits the overall movement). But he does so while they’re properly rooted, and done in faith. And that’s always the last thing in his chapters.

Primarily, this book is an encouragement for the believer. I remember when I first encountered Reformed Theology what a revolutionary and wonderful thing it was to discover that the Gospel is for Christians, too. Duguid’s main task is demonstrating how each part of the armor is Good News for those united to Christ by faith first and foremost. There are parts of this book that I’ll go back to for further study on that point alone.

There are moments of evangelism for the non-believer as well. For the Gospel is to be indiscriminately proclaimed and this book reflects that as much as it argues for it.

Yes, I wish the book was about twice as long and a little more detailed and technical. But that’s not the intention, nor the audience he’s writing for, so I’m not complaining, just noting. Iain Duguid isn’t William Gurnall and doesn’t try to be (the book would be about six times as long if he was), but he does follow similar trajectories. Duguid writes crisply, clearly and effectively. So much so that it’d be easy to breeze through the book without giving it the thought its subject deserves. There’s a lot of meat for reflection and consideration here, and the discriminating reader will take advantage of it — hopefully, less-than-discriminating readers will, too.

I enjoyed this a lot, and will likely be giving copies as gifts, as well as returning to it myself. Recommended for all ages.

Disclaimer: I received this eARC from Crossway via NetGalley in exchange for this post — thanks to both for this.

—–

3.5 Stars

Magic for Liars by Sarah Gailey: A PI, a Horrific Death, and a Magical High School combine for a solid novel

Magic for LiarsMagic for Liars

by Sarah Gailey


Hardcover, 333 pg.
Tom Doherty Associates, 2019

Read: June 24 – 25, 2019

           But this? A real murder case? This was the kind of thing that private detectives didn’t do anymore. It was what had made me get my PI license in the first place―the possibility that I might get to do something big and real, something nobody else could do. I didn’t know the first thing about solving a murder, but this was my chance to find out if I could really do it. If I could be a real detective, instead of a halfway-there failure. If this part of my life could be different from all the other parts, all the parts where I was only ever almost enough.

I won’t try to pinpoint the first lie I told myself over the course of this case. That’s not a useful thread to pull on. The point is, I really thought I was going to do things right this time. I wasn’t going to fuck it up and lose everything. That’s what I told myself as I stared at the old picture of me and Tabitha.

This time was going to be different. This time was going to be better. This time, I was going to be enough.

I can’t describe the book more succicently than the blurb does, so let’s use it and save us all some time (if you ignore the 4 drafts of it that I’ve abandoned):

When a gruesome murder is discovered at The Osthorne Academy of Young Mages, where her estranged twin sister teaches Theoretical Magic, reluctant detective Ivy Gamble is pulled into the world of untold power and dangerous secrets. She will have to find a murderer and reclaim her sister―without losing herself.

Ivy is a PI (much more on that in a moment), a Muggle (if you will allow me to import a term), who is totally not jealous of her twin sister, Tabitha, a gifted magic user. Except that she’s absolutely jealous and angry with her sister for somethings she did and didn’t do back in high school. But she knows about the world of magic―at least that it exists―which makes her the best candidate to come in and investigate the murder that has been officially described as an accident.

There’s a Hogwarts joke on page one, which was a relief for me―it was going to be that kind of book. Yeah, there’s magic and fantasy elements, but there’s also SF/F fiction and an awareness of it. So there’s a Potter-esque element to this, but there’s a very The Magicians feel, too. The magic in it is at once like most Fantasy/Urban Fantasy magic, but Gailey puts a distinctive stamp on it―it’s as fantastic as you want it to be, but it’s also pretty dull (except in a couple of scenes). Dull’s not the right word, but most of the time you see magic, it’s not as exciting as it was the first few times you saw it in Hogwarts (or Diagon Alley) or in Brakebills. Which is because the focus isn’t on the magic―the focus is on the relationship between Ivy and Tabitha, Ivy coming to terms with her Muggle-ness/place in the world, and events and relationships with the students. Now, when the story calls for magic to take center stage, it does so in a wonderful way―but typically, the magic takes a back seat to other things.

Ironically enough, given the setting, Ivy Gamble might be the most realistic PI that I’ve read about lately. The types of cases she works, her financial situation, her awareness of her liabilities (as quoted above, she knows the case she’s taken on is beyond her grasp―but that doesn’t mean she won’t try), the way she thinks about life. She screams authentic―at least compared to most fictional counterparts. She’s good at what she does, but she’s no Spenser, Elvis Cole or Lydia Chin―she’s close to Kinsey Millhone, but not quite. I love listening to her talk about being a private detective:

           Here’s the truth about most detective work: it’s boring, grueling, and monotonous. It involves a lot of being in the right place at the wrong time. But if you spend enough hours being in the right place, eventually, it’ll be the right time. You have to be able to recognize it.
           The other active cases were small potatoes-two disability claims, three cheating spouses, one spouse who wasn’t cheating after all but whose husband couldn’t believe that she had really taken up pottery. She was pretty good at it too.
           I’ve always had a good memory for names. Someone once told me at a conference that’s all it really takes to be a private detective: a good memory for names and faces, an eyeball for details, and. a halfway decent invoicing system.

And while Ivy may not be the best detective in the world, she’s good―and she knows how to put on enough of a show that she can convince everyone else that she’s good enough for the task at hand. While she’s lying to herself about a lot, she’s lying to everyone around her, too. She’s not the only one who’s gifted at self-delusion/self-deception. The word “Liars” is in the title for a reason, and the attentive reader (even the half-awake reader) will see why.

The book’s about a lot more than self-deception, there’s a lot about the role of/importance of family to one’s identity―and how a lack of communication coupled with poor assumptions can warp that.

Gailey kept the plot moving quickly―even as the emotional and familial aspects of the story took their time to work things out. Which is a pretty neat trick, a lot of authors would’ve let things slow down so Ivy and Tabitha could rebuild their relationship, so Ivy could do the soul-searching she needed to, to get deeper into some of the high school relationships, etc. And Gailey hits all those beats (and more), but she does it while keeping the pace going, so you’re turning the pages as fast as you can even while you want to explore the quieter aspects of the story.

Magic for Liars is well-written, well-paced, with a great solution―both to the main plot and to the other storylines, in a wonderful world told in a creative way. But I wanted a little more from it. I can’t put my finger on just where it came up a little short for me, but it did. But make no mistake―I recommend people go read this, because I think most readers will like it more than I did. And I did like the book, I just wanted to like it more. I can’t imagine that Gailey will return to this world (or to these characters, anyway)―but if I’m wrong, I’ll definitely read a sequel. Either way, I’ll definitely be on the lookout for whatever Gailey’s got coming next

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3.5 Stars

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Finest Sh*t!: Deviant Stories by Nick Kolakowski: This collection of short fiction is a great display of Kolakowski’s strengths #IndieCrimeCrawl

I’m going to be kicking off my involvement in #IndieCrimeCrawl with the latest from Nick Kolakowski. About a year ago, he emailed me to take a peek at his novel Boise Longpig Hunting Club, a fast, energetic, visceral read. Then came his Love & Bullets Hookup Trilogy — which was as entertaining as you could want. Now it’s time for his new short fiction collection, which I pre-ordered the instant I heard about it. One of the best things about Indie Crime Fiction is the depth of strong voices with perspectives you don’t find every day. Nick Kolakowski is a prime example of this. Check out all of his work, you’ll be in for a treat.

 Finest Sh*t!Finest Sh*t!: Deviant Stories

by Nick Kolakowski
Series: Loose Rounds, Book 2

Kindle Edition, 202 pg.
Final Round Press, 2019

Read: June 14 – July 3, 2019

           With a feral yelp, Raoul worked the dial until he landed on a station thundering drums and guitar, a solid backbeat for Luis and Jesus slicing and shoveling mounds of peppers and onions and pig. The music blasted the asphalt amphitheater of the parking lot, signaling that the truck was officially open for business.

The first customers drifted toward them. Give me your hungry, your nearly broke, your masses yearning for lunchtime deliciousness, Jesus thought as he wiped his hands on his apron and prepared to meet the first of the lunch rush. And I’ll give you two tacos for three dollars.

That’s from “Taco Truck,” one of the ten short stories that appear with a novella in Nick Kolakowski’s latest collection, Finest Sh*t!: Deviant Stories. There are tales of revenge, heroism, thwarted revenge, and people driven to extremes no one should be driven to — even some SF. Essentially, like with the best of Crime Fiction (no matter when it’s set) we have people in desperate situations (sometimes of their own making, sometimes out of their control) doing what they needed to.

As with every short story collection, there are some of these short stories that really, really worked for me, and others that didn’t do much for me at all — that’s just how it goes. But even the stories that I didn’t appreciate had that Kolakowski quality that I’ve really come to enjoy.

The novella, The Farm takes up about half of the book. It begins in 1931 and ends in 2008, following one farming family through the generations. This family goes through wars, violent crime, financial hardship, betrayal — and more than a few of the more positive parts of life, too. There’s some poetry, too. I guess that qualifies as one of the more positive aspects, but I’m not always sure. In the end, I really liked this novella — but it took some effort to get into it. That’s probably on me. Kolakowski fits a novel’s worth of a family saga into this roughly 100 pages — which is quite a feat. There’s part of me that would like to see it developed into a 350-400 page novel to flush out some of the details, but I think he’s right to keep it brief. It alone is well worth grabbing the collection.

This collection covers all sorts of tones, topics and perspectives. As I’ve come to expect from Kolakowski, I wouldn’t have predicted anything that I found in these pages. My rating may be on the low side, but that’s just because I couldn’t really sink my teeth into anything — I typically rate short story collections low. But there’s gold in here — a little dross (but what I think is dross will probably appeal to others). If you’re not familiar with Kolakowski, this is a great way to introduce yourself to one of the strongest voices in Crime Fiction today. If you are familiar with him, you don’t need me to tell you how good these stories can be.

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3.5 Stars

The Butcher by Nathan Burrows: A dark comedy with a strong agenda and a sweet center

The ButcherThe Butcher

by Nathan Burrows
Series: The Rub-a-Dub-Dub Trilogy, #1

Kindle Edition, 316 pg.
2018
Read: July 4 – 5, 2018

This is a pretty challenging post to write — it feels like saying almost anything about this book will be spoiling something — but that’s simply not going to be the case.

We’ve got four major characters to focus on — Andy Robertson is an intern in the marketing department of a local grocery store chain. He’s as desperate to keep his job as the CEO of the company is to win the hearts and minds of shoppers, too). Emily Underwood is a rookie food inspector, having recently got far enough in her training that she can be let loose to do inspections on her own — I don’t know if this is more a commentary on the area she’s assigned to or her luck (probably the latter), but she should have armed backup. The places and staff she’s inspecting are so strange, you almost don’t need anything else to make a fun read. Frank and Tom Prince are our last two — they’re brothers, struggling to maintain the family pig farm and butcher shop — neither of which are having the best year, but maybe some good word of mouth an turn things around. When disaster strikes fro them at the farm, something happens that gives Frank the tastiest sausage they’ve had in ages — and their customers think so, too.

Mix these people, concerns and places in life together and you end up with one of the zanier (but grounded) dark comedies around. This doesn’t start out as Crime Fiction, but in a Fargo-esque turn of events, it ends up as one. (Either the film or the series will fill things for our purposes). Some everyday people get desperate, make some bad choices and things spiral out of control before they realize what they’re doing/becoming.

The humor is hard to pull off — there’s some really dark material under consideration, and Burrows is also looking at political and societal trends to talk about here. It’s an ambitious undertaking and he acquits himself well. I could’ve used another 2-4 more inspections by Emily. The book doesn’t need them — and honestly, they would’ve felt like padding. But I really liked watching that poor girl floundering through her career is fantastic.

This doesn’t feel like a 316 page book — anything north of 200 pages doesn’t seem right (but what do I know?). Everything that happens, all the character moments, are tightly packed and blend together in a cohesive whole that seems ready to burst — not unlike a Pinch’s Sausage, I guess. Yet, Burrows keeps this from being convoluted and keeps it just on the complicated side — given all the moving parts he’s juggling that’s a pretty decent accomplishment. From the great first chapter until the perfect closing line (I can’t think of a better final line that I’ve read this year) — this is a wonderfully constructed book.

A dark comedy with a strong agenda and a sweet center, this is a flavorful literary snack that’ll be sure to bring a smile to your face and a chuckle along, as well. I had a great time reading it, and you will to.

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3.5 Stars

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My thanks to damppebbles blog tours for the invitation to participate in this tour and the materials (including a copy of the novel) they provided.

Pub Day Repost: Null Set by SL Huang: Cas Russell — the world’s most violent mathematician — gets proactive fighting crime.

Null SetNull Set

by SL Huang
Series: Cas Russell, #2

eARC, 288 pg.
Tor Books, 2019
Read: June 17 – 19, 2019

In the aftermath of Zero Sum Game, Cas and her associates are seeing the fallout from taking down those telepaths who’ve been reigning in expressions of human corruption, and it’s not pretty. So, she takes it upon herself (with a little help from her friends) to fight crime in LA — à la that rich guy in Gotham, that lawyer in Hell’s Kitchen, or the sole survivor of the Cavendish ambush of the Texas Rangers. She’s making a difference, but not as much as she wants, until she decides to take a more proactive approach.

I’ll skip the details, but what she comes up with (and talks her team into helping with) is a combination of technology, psychology and her genius. It’s so successful that every major criminal figure in LA would happily kill her several times over if they only knew what she was doing and who was doing it. Of course, many of these people are former/potential future customers. This little dance she does, while trying to get the goods on one player in particular, is a whole lot of fun to watch.

It’s also fascinating watching Cas’ develop a conscience, and then let it take her in ways that bring her into conflict with her team. They go along with her, but with reservations. In many ways, she’s grown from the woman we met in the opening of Zero Sum Game — but in so many ways she hasn’t. The heavy drinking she indulges in/retreats to testifies to that.

One thing that happened at the end of the previous novel was that a telepath triggered something in her — how much of an effect this had, or whether it was time, or something else (probably a combination of the three) has loosened something in her subconscious. Memories — partial, confusing, scattered — are coming back to her — from a time that Cas had given up on ever remembering. The memories come back, unbidden, at the worst possible times and make her vulnerable when she needs to be focusing. They also point to mysteries, questions and so many unknown things that Cas decides she’s not going to acknowledge that this is problematic for her, her work and those who depend on her.

My problem is that I think Huang overestimated how interested people were in Cas’ background and trying to learn about it/deal with it. Maybe it just feels that way to me because I can’t muster up the level of enthusiasm that the novel seems to want me to have, and everyone else will be hanging on every word. What Cas is going through has roots in the conclusion to Zero Sum Game and in her murky past. Instead of dealing with the memories and issues they raise, she spends most of the novel running from the problems, not in denial, just in a refusal to work through them — until she can’t any more (and even then . . . ). If I knew her better, if I was given more of a reason to be curious about her past, I think this could be a very interesting plot line But we don’t, and we’re not — and I had a hard time getting above the level of mild interest in this part of the novel. Which isn’t good — because this is what the novel really wants to talk about, not Cas’ innovative solutions to fighting crime.

For people who haven’t read Taylor Stevens’ Michael Munroe novels, this paragraph won’t do much for you. You should read those, by the way, if you like Cas Russell. In the second book in this series, The Innocents, Stevens takes Munroe — her complicated, almost impossible to believe, hyperviolent protagonist with a self-destructive bent (hmmm, who does that sound like?) — and has her deal with some of her problems, taking a deep dive into her psyche at the risk of the job she’s taken on — and the innocents she’s supposed to be rescuing/saving. I’d liked Munroe in her first book, and continued to, but I struggled getting through that book — but once Munroe had dealt with (in some way) what was getting to her, she was a stronger and more interesting character. I cannot tell you how often while reading Null Set that I thought back to The Innocents. True, very different books, different problems plaguing the protagonists — but their reactions to the issues and how they intend to deal with the problems raised, remind me greatly of each other. I’m hoping what comes next for this series is as strong as it was for Stevens’.

Everything else about this novel was just as absorbing and captivating as Zero Sum Game. The supporting characters were, if anything, more interesting than they were last time — and the two new characters in Cas’ circle were welcome additions. The ethical dilemma posed by Cas’ actions was pretty interesting, and a good twist on the similar conundrum posed in (and, arguably, less clear — although, I’m with Checker in not seeing it that way). The characters’ reactions to her plans (and carrying them out) seemed authentic and not just something to create drama. If Huang had wanted to and just dialed back the A-Story and dialed up the B-Story, I’d have been more enthusiastic about this — probably as much as I was about Zero Sum Game, maybe moreso.

And you just cannot beat Huang’s combination of math and fight scenes — others dabble in it, but most don’t go as far (they’re probably not that good at math) or do it as well. I don’t know why these scenes work so well for me, but I just love them. Think of River Tam wielding a gun in “War Stories” — but if she was able to tell you what she was doing and why without sounding a little . . . well, River-like. I’m not doing a great job of describing it, but it’s hard. But if Huang decided she just wanted to publish a novella or two that really just consisted of fight scenes without a whole lot of plot? I’d be all over them. Nothing against plot or characters, but sometimes they just get in the way.

I did like Null Set — just not as much as I expected to, or wanted to. But I’m still in for more of this series. What Huang’s set up for the next novel (or more) — really has my interest. The possibilities for book three have really got my curiosity churning. Having (somewhat/largely) dealt with these issues around Cas, the door is wide open for what comes next — I literally can’t wait. This isn’t what I wanted from the second Cas Russell novel, but it’s good — and will likely be a strong foundation to build on. Recommended.

Disclaimer: I received this eARC from Macmillan-Tor/Forge via NetGalley in exchange for this post — thanks to both for this.

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3.5 Stars