A Noir Superhero Thriller: Zero Sum Game by S.L. Huang

I remember reading S.L. Huang’s Zero Sum Game soon after its first publication in 2014.  Memory is a hazy and uncertain thing, but I do recall one thing: that book, though similar in incident and outline to this one, was a much less accomplished and smooth thriller experience. The rest of this review won’t discuss any differences between the first publication and this one (and not just because I don’t remember them in enough detail to comment) but they’re definitely present.

Cas Russell doesn’t have superpowers. What she has is an incredible facility with mathematics, very good proprioception, and sufficient athleticism that what she can do looks like superpowers. (For all intents and purposes, she definitely has superpowers; she just believes that they’re natural talent.) Russell specialises in retrieval work: she can find anything and steal it (back) for you. She’s casually violent, poorly socialised, and has no respect for other people’s property. And she doesn’t do well with boredom.

Her only “friend” is Rio, a terrifying person who, finding himself without empathy and with a taste for torture, built himself a rigorous moral code and set out on a personal crusade: he only tortures bad people, while occasionally rescuing innocents. Russell’s attached to Rio. Rio may or may not be attached to Russell.

Russell’s latest job has come via a referral from Rio. (At least, so she believes.) Retrieving a young woman called Courtney from a Columbian drug cartel is slightly more complicated than Russell’s usual line—not least because she doesn’t normally retrieve people—but it shouldn’t be that much more trouble. But there’s more here than meets the eye.

A surprisingly effective cop-turned-PI, one Arthur Tresting, is on Courtney’s trail. He suspects Courtney of being a murderer. He suspects her of being part of a conspiracy. And Russell can’t quite manage to dismiss him, because she’s discovered that someone has screwed with her head. She’s reluctant to believe that it’s possible there are people in the world who can control minds—who are such masters at subliminal understanding and manipulation that it may as well be telepathy—and that such a person has affected her. But the evidence points to it, and Russell has a hard time arguing with logic.

Zero Sum Game is a fast, hard-hitting, gonzo superpowered thriller. Huang builds tension scene-on-scene, skillfully manipulating the pace, and every second chapter feels like a cliffhanger. Russell’s being manipulated to get to Rio, but Russell’s also being manipulated for her own sake, and nested secrets and competing priorities jostle with each other for space without ever making the narrative seem crowded. That’s a difficult trick to pull off, but necessary for a really good thriller. Huang succeeds nicely here.

My favourite part of the novel, however, is the characters and their interactions. For all that Russell’s abrasive, impulsive, and entirely too cavalier about ending other people’s lives, she’s also decidedly appealing as a character. And her first-person viewpoint narration makes for a compelling read, especially when her (lack of) morality comes up against Arthur Tresting’s solid, law-abiding-except-for-occasional-breaches-in-the-cause-of-justice sense of ethics. When Tresting calls Russell out for being an asshole, for being too quick to murder, and too quick to defend a mass-murdering torturer, he’s not wrong. He’s got a point. (He’s got all the points.) That makes their uneasy buddy-relationship, slowly blossoming from a desperate mutual alliance into something that might resemble a prickly kind of friendship, all the more interesting and entertaining to read. (Potential spoiler ahead; highlight text to read.) It also makes Russell’s eventual betrayal at Tresting’s hands—though, to be fair, it’s not exactly his fault—a much more painful moment.

Rounding out the cast of characters is Tresting’s hacker buddy Checker, a wheelchair-using genius who cracks pop culture jokes, is most at ease communicating from behind a screen, and gives everyone shit. (He and Russell seem to be slightly better at understanding each other than Russell and Tresting.) The antagonists are less well developed, remaining shadowy figures of conspiratorial power—but that’s half the fun.

Zero Sum Game is enormously fun, with vivid, visceral action scenes and a main character who’s definitely on the darker, more scuffed end of the “moral shades of grey” spectrum. Huang’s taken liberal inspiration from old-fashioned noir as well as from superhero stories and the modern high-octane Hollywood-esque thriller to create a novel that’s a souped-up blend of all three. I really enjoyed it. I recommend it, and I’m definitely looking forward to seeing more of Huang’s work reach a wider audience.

Zero Sum Game is available from Tor Books.
Read an excerpt here.

Liz Bourke is a cranky queer person who reads books. She holds a Ph.D in Classics from Trinity College, Dublin. Her first book, Sleeping With Monsters, a collection of reviews and criticism, was published in 2017 by Aqueduct Press. It was a finalist for the 2018 Locus Awards and was nominated for a 2018 Hugo Award in Best Related Work. Find her at her blog, where she’s been known to talk about even more books thanks to her Patreon supporters. Or find her at her Twitter. She supports the work of the Irish Refugee Council, the Transgender Equality Network Ireland, and the Abortion Rights Campaign.

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