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.

—–

3.5 Stars

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.

—–

3.5 Stars

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