S.L. Huang’s ZERO SUM GAME might have the most alluring pitch I’ve ever read: Cas Russell, mathematical genius, fights crime and kicks ass with lightning-quick calculations that supplement her prodigious martial arts abilities. But she might have finally met her match in someone “who can reach directly into people’s minds and twist their brains into Moebius strips.” Cas’s power is being utterly logical; this opponent can warp the only axioms Cas takes to be true. Therefore, explosions.
I know Huang is a martial artist who’s worked as a Hollywood stuntwoman, and it shows. ZERO SUM GAME reads like a blockbuster film best devoured in a single sitting. The action scenes are fast-paced, cinematic, and awesome. The dialogue is quick and snappy, and the criminal tactics and cyber-warfare are just complicated and cool enough for me to suspend all disbelief. It’s Jack Reacher, Mission Impossible, and James Bond all mixed into one, but this time through a narrative voice that doesn’t spend time ogling over boobs or reducing women to sexy plot objects.
I immediately fell for for the three central characters. I LOVE murder boys so my obvious favorite was the bloody and mysterious Rio, a self-admitted utter psychopath who feeds off pain, but somehow abides entirely by the Bible through the fluke of his religious upbringing. He’s a hitman who “seeks out the people he judges deserve God’s vengeance,” in order to “introduce them to God.” He is utterly terrifying and help I’m in love. Arthur Tresting is his polar opposite–he’s the fundamentally good-hearted cop turned private investigator who’s willing to break the law in the service of his morals, but adamantly opposed to killing innocents. And Cas–wonderful, gritty, vulnerable, brilliant, stupid Cas–is a blend of the two. She’d like to believe she’s as cold and ruthlessly efficient as Rio, but her emotions get the best of her more often then she’d like to admit.
There’s nothing new about this combination. It’s a textbook trio, really, but Huang spins the trope to its greatest possible effect. I love how they banter; how they play off each other and push each other to the extremes. And I will never, ever not be down for a Murder Boy with Cool Backstory. Never.
If you always wished you could get a James Bond book with a female protagonist, or if you just really, really like math, this book is for you. I ate it up in two sittings and I’d do it again for the sequel. Huang does a great job outlining stakes and unanswered questions for future books–I’m desperately curious about Cas’s backstory, and I can’t wait for the next installment.
Zero Sum Game is out now from Tor.
Q&A with S.L. Huang
You have a degree in mathematics from MIT. How has that been an asset in your work as a stuntwoman? How did you spin that into writing Cas’s abilities?
Believe it or not, I got my first stunt job (on Battlestar Galactica, no less! Nerd nirvana!) partly because of my MIT alumni email address. The stunt coordinator said it showed him “some brains behind the brawn.” Over the years, I met one other MIT alum and a Dartmouth graduate doing stunts, and we all agreed people were so fascinated by it they wanted to hire us.
Incidentally, some of the best engineers I’ve ever met are stunt riggers. It takes an incredible amount of science and innovation to be an expert in all the support equipment we use for action scenes!
As for how I used my math degree for writing Cas—I use some of it, sure, but most of the math I studied was pretty theoretical, whereas Cas’s immediate challenges usually require something more practical or physics-related. Still math, but not what I specialized in as an undergrad. Instead, I’d say where my math degree really comes out is in the texture of how she thinks, the way she breathes numbers through her interaction with the world. I don’t think I could have written that without having lived that immersion in hardcore math studies, surrounded by people who regularly used words like “orthogonal” and “monotonic” in conversation.
I can’t get over Rio. What inspired his character? I’ve never met a sociopath with a strict Biblical moral code before.
I love that everyone is so into Rio! (And am also a little scared by this.)
In fiction, I’ve always been delighted by characters that have some sort of emotionlessness built into them (see: Spock, Data). In most of the unfinished and/or terrible novels I’ve written since I was a teenager, there has been some iteration of this character—often damaged, always emotionally stunted, usually a killer.
So Rio is the latest in a long line of fascinatingly emotionally lacking characters I’ve been drawn to create. I think, however, that he is probably the most successful of them. And unlike many of the other characters I’ve played with who have these emotional deficiencies, he has no aspirations to gain empathy. At all.
I’m always interested in how thrillers handle the balance between realistic stunts and entirely made-up ruses. How many of the technical/mechanical/cyber hijinks in ZERO SUM GAME are real, and how many are babble for the sake of fiction? How did you research to write them so plausibly?
To be honest, I always do gallons and gallons of research when I’m planning a scene, so if something in Zero Sum Game is implausible, I don’t know it! (Don’t tell me if it is.)
For example, everything about the EMP scene is as accurate as I could make it. I even read a military study that said they found 90 percent of cars would still work, but with some dash flickering… I put all that in the book.
Or when I have Cas shoot a grenade out of the air, I actually did all the math to make sure a bullet from the gun she was carrying could knock a grenade off course.
On the other hand, my hacker’s predictive programs are slightly futuristic and don’t exist in that form yet, but the methodology for them, believe it or not, is real—I stole it from the startup of one of my best friends!
To my knowledge, the only thing I fudged in Zero Sum Game is that when Cas is arrested, my research said the process of booking her would move more slowly than it does in the book. I could have done it entirely accurately, but I realized that would disrupt the pacing, so I compressed it just a little to make the read more entertaining. No regrets.
So, although I’d class most of the hijinks I used as unlikely, to my knowledge everything except the SF superpower elements is either possible in today’s real world or very reasonable extrapolation!
Hate glocks, got it. What’s your favorite type of gun, either in fiction or real life?
That’s easy! My favorite gun is a Belgian-made Browning Hi-Power in nine-millimeter. (Cas would scoff at the nine-millimeter part, but she’s a caliber snob.)
I have to say, instead of futuristic fictional guns, I am honestly much more delighted by historical firearms. For example, I love working with Old West rifles and six-shooters. There’s so much history and character that goes into understanding older weapons, and that’s a complexity fictional weapons usually don’t have, alas.
If we loved ZERO SUM GAME, what should we read next?
Ooo, this is a very timely question, because I just finished Rebecca Roanhorse’s Trail of Lightning, which stars another badass, mercenary, slightly emotionally stunted heroine named Maggie Hoskie. If you liked Cas in Zero Sum Game, I feel certain you’ll love Maggie!
And on top of an awesome protagonist, Trail of Lighting features a stunningly rich, creative dystopia as well as prose that would have made me jealous if I weren’t enjoying it so much. I definitely recommend it.
Review by Rebecca F. Kuang