Zero Sum Game by S.L. Huang

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Publication Date: 2 October 2018
Publisher: Tor Books
Format: eBook
Pages: 305
ISBN: 1250180252

Summary: 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, and she’ll take any job for the right price.

As far as Cas knows, she’s the only person around with a superpower…until she 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.

Cas should run, like she usually does, but for once she’s involved. There’s only one problem…
She doesn’t know which of her thoughts are her own anymore.

I’ll be frank, I don’t usually like urban fantasy and as such, I could tell this book wasn’t really for me. I thought the initial premise was good: super-powered mercenaries fighting a secret organization. However, as I read, there were just too many other factors that distracted from the otherwise interesting story.

Firstly, I found the powers really frustratingly undefined. Our MC Cas has the power of being really really good at math. Basically, she can see numbers in the objects around her and do insane mental calculations that let her know what angle to shoot her gun at, how much force it will take to break something, and so on. While the mechanics were mostly unexplained, I went with the assumption that they were basically the same as the Number Man’s from Worm by Wilbow and I was fine.
The problem I had was with the mind reader’s powers (name not given for spoilers). We are told by people who have only heard rumor’s about this person’s abilities that she can read minds and influence other people’s decisions simply by talking to them. It’s implied that this works because of her ability to manipulate human empathy. However, we are a) told this from people working only from rumors yet our protagonists take everything they say as fact, and b) shown some of the effects of her power that cannot possibly be purely empathy manipulation. We don’t even know how her powers really trigger, whether it’s mental compulsion or if it’s more verbally based. Her powers branch out later to even more confusing mind-fuckery to the point where I’m not even sure what her powers are anymore. For a book that prides itself in using structure and mathematical lingo, her powers aren’t really described all that well.
Second was Cas’ overall personality. Her powers are math-based, which tends to be very logical. Several characters throughout the book that even tell her that she thinks in a very logical manner. Yet, over and over again, Cas acted in a frustratingly rash way that screamed the opposite of logical. Several times, Cas will jump to one (mentally induced) conclusion, finds out she’s been ‘brainwashed’, then immediately jump to another conclusion with no steps in between. She immediately goes from suspecting one group of people are the enemy, to the next group of people, and never really stops to consider motives or evidence along the way.
Finally, I found the sheer number of Idiot Balls being passed around frustrating. For a group of professional mercenaries and investigators, you’d think they’d be better at spotting obvious traps. There was a span in the middle where certain situations may as well have been labeled with a neon sign shouting TRAP, yet characters would still walk into them unsuspectingly. Arthur was the most common carrier, though Cas definitely had her share of moments as well (see: lack of logical thinking).
That is, of course, not to say this book didn’t have its high points. The book starts with a great action scene that really hooks you in. Really all the actions scenes were very well written and the scenes were Cas is actively using her math powers were a delight to read. I enjoy creatively utilized superpowers and Cas definitely has her moments. Cas aside, I also really liked Rio and Checker’s characters. Rio has an air of mystery around him that stays with him through his limited appearances. Eventually, I would like to know his backstory but this book was a good intro for him. Checker was the tech geek of the team who I definitely could have used more of.
Overall, I rate this book a 3.5. There were simply too many sections that I found unsatisfying and many of the characters too annoying. I feel bad giving this book such a low score since I loved the first several chapters and I got to meet the author at BookCon this past weekend. However, I can see other people enjoying it more, especially those who prefer this genre.
I received an eARC from NetGalley in exchange for an open and honest review.


2 thoughts on “Zero Sum Game by S.L. Huang

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