First, we have to talk about my ridiculous luck. I actually won this book (and the two books that currently make up the Villains series, the first of which I have reviewed here, and the second here) in a competition. Ah! I haven’t won anything in about ten years. So I’m very pleased with myself1.I’ve been a fan of the Russel’s Attic series for… two years? I think? When I found out the series had been picked up by Tor and would be getting re-released I was very excited, the series is great and deserves more readers. In service of that goal2, here are my thoughts on the Zero Sum Game.
Starting (as has become usual) with the stunning cover art, can we all (both?) just take a moment to admire this magnificence? Hopefully it shows up in that decidedly sub-par image, but the bullet hole is raised, with cracks and holographic equations radiating out from it. Gorgeous! And a great match to the book.
Ft. weird hotel bed and lighting. Note to self—don’t try and do book photography while holidaying. Or at least include the beach, geez.
I’m including the synopsis below to do the boring work of vaguely hinting a the plot, so I can do the fun bits, and just critique the work of someone far more talented and successful than I am.
Deadly. Mercenary. Superhuman. Not your ordinary math geek.
Cas Russell is good at math. Scary good.
The vector calculus blazing through her head lets her smash through armed men twice her size and dodge every bullet in a gunfight. She can take any job for the right price and shoot anyone who gets in her way.
As far as she knows, she’s the only person around with a superpower . . . but then Cas discovers someone with a power even more dangerous than her own. Someone who can reach directly into people’s minds and twist their brains into Moebius strips. Someone intent on becoming the world’s puppet master.
Someone who’s already warped Cas’s thoughts once before, with her none the wiser.
Cas should run. Going up against a psychic with a god complex isn’t exactly a rational move, and saving the world from a power-hungry telepath isn’t her responsibility. But she isn’t about to let anyone get away with violating her brain — and besides, she’s got a small arsenal and some deadly mathematics on her side. There’s only one problem . . .
She doesn’t know which of her thoughts are her own anymore.
There weren’t many changes that I noticed in the hardcopy version of the book compared to the formerly published digital one, but there were some intriguing hints that could provide a foreshadowed defeat of an otherwise insurmountable enemy. So that’s cool.
The diversity is worked into Zero Sum Game right, that is to say—it never seems self-congratulatory or forced. The main character is a badass, short, non-traditionally feminine woman of colour who’s really good at maths. None of those facts are treated as defining (well, maybe the maths bit).
Likewise with the supporting characters, one of whom has a disability that requires the use of a wheelchair, two of whom are people of colour, and one of whom is a very religious sociopath with a strict moral code. That brings me to my next point—the characters in this book are unique.
Female antagonists that aren’t sexualised? Check. Feminist characters that aren’t women or love interests? Check. Highly moral characters that are still pragmatic in the face of danger? Check. Honestly, I don’t review books that I don’t like, so my opinion probably seems biased (okay, probably is biased)—but if you read enough you eventually run into the same types of characters enough that things get stale. Zero Sum Game—the entire Russel’s Attic series, really—is a breath of fresh air.
The premise of the book is a bit ambitious for a first novel—an international shadow conglomerate that aims to make the world a better place, with questionable motives. The protagonist of the book is Cas Russel, a maths genius/sometimes alcoholic, with a shady job and hazy past. She gets drawn into investigating the conglomerate while trying to rescue a helpless young drug mule3, and the usually fast-paced, action filled events of the novel unfold from there.
You want maths-based violence? There’s maths-based violence.
You want an examination of the morality of large-scale interference with small-scale casualties? Zero Sum Game has you covered.
You want a main character who has emotional damage, morals that are questionable at best, a rock-solid faith in her unquestionably amoral not-friend and (it bears repeating) math superpowers? Yep.
Watching Cas get fractionally4 closer to Checker and Arthur, and the brief hints we get to her backstory with Rio, is really rewarding. And if the villains of the piece are a bit too nebulous to provide the best closure, you can rest easy knowing the series continues spectacularly, with more varied and immediate antagonists, and more concrete solutions to the issues faced in the books. But that’s a minor complaint, I actually appreciate the acknowledgement that not all issues can be solved on the first try (if problems get solved too easily, a character has no room to grow).
There are a lot of great lines in the book, the one below is a little censored to avoid giving away any major plot points.
“How do you feel?”
“Like I’ve been shot,”…
“Understandable, given the circumstances.”
Anyone who enjoys their sci-fi with a side of morality and social issues, a dash of witty banter and a hefty dose of thrilling action scenes will enjoy Zero Sum Game. I know I did.
1And with SL Huang/whoever runs her newsletter. Thank you for my book!
2Nice sentence, self, not clunky or awkward at all