Review: Null Set (Cas Russell #2) by SL Huang

This (much like my previous review of Zero Sum Game) is a little strange, because this is a slightly rewritten republish of a book I had previously read and liked. I haven’t read the previous version of this book (Plastic Smile which was the fourth Russel’s Attic novel) in a while, so I’ll try to keep comparisons between the two books to a minimum, and just review Null Set in it’s own right.

The cover is fine, nothing special, nothing terrible; there’s really not much to say

Math-genius mercenary Cas Russell has decided to Fight Crime(tm). After all, with her extraordinary mathematical ability, she can neuter bombs or out-shoot an army. And the recent outbreak of violence in the world’s cities is Cas’s own fault—she’s the one who crushed the organization of telepaths keeping the world’s worst offenders under control.

But Cas’s own power also has a history, one she can’t remember—or control. One that’s creeping into her mind and fracturing her sanity…just when she’s gotten herself on the hit list of every crime lord on the West Coast. And her best, only, sociopathic friend. Cas won’t be able to save the world. She might not even be able to save herself.

As always, I love the math-based enhancements/super powers that Cas has, and the way she still seems human and flawed thanks to the personality quirks due, in large part, to the trauma she has experienced in her life—I don’t consider that a spoiler, as it is a base level character trait of Cas, but this book does expand quite a bit on what has happened to Cas to make her act as she does, which I, as a sucker for character development, of course loved.

The classic sci fi ethical situations that arise in this book are quite similar to those examined in Zero Sum Game, namely, is it okay to manipulate people into doing something good for the world? If you have the ability to influence people’s actions for the better, even if they wouldn’t choose to act in such a way, should you do it? Sl Huang does a good job of not presenting a black and white situation with an obvious answers to these questions, and using Cas’s grey morality (and other foils like Rico, Arthur, Pilar and Checker, all of whom have different spots on a moral continuum) to show the nuance in a situation; ultimately allowing you to make the decision for yourself.

Cas’s personal growth in this story is somewhat stunted, and I wish she had more ability to understand and react on her own terms. I know that part of a realistic and satisfying character arc is sometimes having the protagonist stumble around in the dark, but the mystery of Cas’s past at times annoyed me. I felt like the tension meant to drive the plot didn’t really land perfectly, because Cas is the main character—it’s really unlikely that she’ll die or suffer any major changes. I think if the consequences of this book had been set up to affect Cas’s friends as seriously as they did her, it might have seemed like a more credible threat.

This next criticism is a spoiler, because I have to mention it and even speaking in vague terms it’s going to ruin the end, so if you haven’t read the book and would like to, don’t read past this point.

You have been warned.








I hated the way Cas’s mistakes got retconned out of existence with magic mind control powers that somehow work on/through technology. If that’s the case, why didn’t Pithica just send a computer virus to everyone’s phones with a video making them think/do/forget anything they needed?

This is my problem with big, godlike powers getting introduced—especially in a universe with otherwise hard-science type powers. Cas’s abilities are mathematical and physical, it’s easy to see how that might work. Dawna’s abilities being framed as extreme EQ was likewise fairly easy to accept. Some people are more charismatic, persuasive and perceptive than others. I can see that being dialled up to a thousand and seeming like mind control. Simon, however, annoys me as a character, and that’s most likely deliberate as Cas obviously has problems with him. BUT I don’t think his telepathy (if that is definitely what he has?) is particularly realistic or interesting. His reaction to case seems a little two dimensional (and entirely one sided), and his interactions with Rio are inconsistent enough to be annoying rather than intriguing.

But back to my point, once something huge like mind-control that works en masse to entirely remove the consequences of Cas’s actions and can also work through technology in narratively convenient ways, or time travel, or magic of any kind with no obvious source or limits; it makes it hard for any obstacle to seem insurmountable.

Someone died? Time travel. Arrested? Mind control. Forgot your mum’s birthday? Memory manipulation. It makes everything seem underwhelming, easily solvable, and takes away the tension that would otherwise make the book exciting.

I think Cas’s original plan to resolve the final showdown (I’m trying to make these spoilers as unspoilery as possible, so forgive the clunky wording), despite relying on effectively the same fix, would have been a much better solution. The reservations that cleared up within half an hour to magically save the day after the cinematic shootout was less surprising and original than it was annoying. This (as the entire review is) is only my opinion, of course, but I think giving Simon more character development, and truly fleshing out his reasons for doing and not doing what he does, could have helped Null Set end a lot stronger, as it was, I love the characters and the situations that developed, but the drip fed mystery felt more frustrating than intriguing.

That being said, I have read the first four books of the series that became this one, and then re-read the two re-published books (Zero Sum Game, previously published under the same name as the first book, and Null Set, formerly Plastic Smile, the fourth book); so maybe I’m frustrated because I’ve been invested in finding out about Cas’s past for longer, and so am less patient waiting for the storyline to resolve. That’s also totally possible.

Oh, while we’re still in spoiler territory and discussing the previous versions of these novels, I feel the need to mention that I think having the two books between Zero Sum Game and Null Set/Plastic Smile helped to make the situation with Malcolm and the other crime figures more compelling, as there was more shared history. I also really enjoyed those books and, while I’m happy there are new books out already, I don’t know why those entries weren’t republished.

Okay, spoilers done, back to the main review for the conclusion.







All in all, I enjoyed Null Set, but thought that Cas and one other notable character needed more motivation for their actions. Without it, the events in this book, while exciting, didn’t seem believable—I am aware that I’m talking about a math-vigilante working to supress a crime wave, I mean believable in terms of the world of the book.

Null Set was fun, interesting, and definitely worth a read if you enjoy fast paced, action books that don’t skimp on moral and ethical dilemmas. I think this book would appeal to readers of Kim Harrison’s Hollows novels, Richard Kadrey’s Sandman Slim series, the ubiquitous Dresden Files by Jim Butcher, Holly Black’s Curseworkers trilogy, VE Schwab’s incredible Villains books or Lindsay Buroker’s The Emperor’s Edge series.

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