Cas Russell (Russell's Attic) Series
by S. L. Huang
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
1: Zero Sum Game
I received a free e-book of this title from Net Galley in exchange for an honest review. Zero Sum Game will be published in hardcover and all e-book formats on Oct. 2, 2018. However, it's not a new book, but it has been edited from the original self-published title from 2014. Tor Books has acquired the rights to it and its sequels. The first book can still be purchased as a used paperback through Amazon (searchable through link on the title), but the sequels might have only been offered digitally, or else Tor has been effective in recalling all copies so as not to harm sales for the forthcoming releases. They don't come up in a search at bookfinder.com, and the only copies of this title they show are current ebay listings for ARCs of the new edition. I hope to continue with this series in the future, but I haven't included the later books above since it is possible titles might change. You can get more info on the author's website.
The collective name for the series used to be Russell's Attic (a mathematical term), now simply Cas Russell, the first person narrator of the story. The author has a degree in mathematics, from MIT no less, and her heroine utilizes math in her work, but in a very unique way. Cas is a free-lance 'retrieval' specialist, hiring out for the rescue of kidnap victims, locating stolen property, etc. She is very good at what she does, and can be deadly if the situation warrants extreme action. She uses math to calculate deflection angles, velocity of bullets, kicked or thrown objects, as well as how their path can be altered after the fact. She can figure paths of attack or retreat from wind speed, material mass and density, the fracture gradient of glass, etc. Acute hearing enables her to pinpoint the direction from which a gunshot was fired, keen eyesight and triangulation for the origin of a laser target, even when the shooter or weapon is not visible. All of this in fractions of a second, and since only one(?) person knows her secret, much of what she does must seem like magic to those who face her. There are hints that at least some of her talent was not inherent in her DNA, but may have been manipulated by others, but I wouldn't doubt my suspicions as to who could be mistaken.
Cas is hired by Dawna Polk to rescue her sister, Courtney, who has gotten involved with drug runners. An associate of Cas's, whom she frequently has to say is not her friend but she trusts him, supposedly referred Dawna to her. When she finds the sister she is surprised to find that associate, Rio, embedded with the gang for one of his own investigations. She is confused as to why he couldn't have saved Courtney himself, but later learns he was there for other reasons and had no idea who she was. So who referred her to Dawna if not Rio? She does get the girl away from the gang, but finds someone else is on her trail, whom she suspects is a cop. Turns out he's a former cop, now a PI. Arthur Tresting is working the case from a completely different angle. He's after whomever killed his client's husband, a journalist looking into a mysterious organization called Pithica, and his primary suspect had been Courtney. Cas and Arthur have several confrontations that almost end in violence, but they eventually begin to work together. Then something else happens that causes him to back away from her, thinking she's too dangerous and unpredictable. Which she is. He's forced to change his mind when she continually saves his life. Pithica is not the only unknown factor either, since another group seems to be after them too, people who claim to be government agents but clearly aren't. Neither Pithica nor the secret not-government group appear to care about collateral damage. Cas, Rio, Tresting, and his colleague, super-hacker Checker, are determined to get to the bottom of the mystery. Checker is the only one I'd identify as a 'good' person, all the rest, including Cas, have done and are doing bad things, even if for the right reasons. One of them, and I won't identify which one, reminded me of a line from Malcolm Reynolds in a Firefly episode, "Nothing worse than a monster who thinks he's right with God."
I've tried finding out more about S. L. Huang herself, because based on the description on her bibliography page at FantasticFiction she may be as intriguing a person as any of her characters. It mentions her math degree, and also that she is a weapons expert and has worked as a professional stuntwoman, although she has no listing at IMDb. The only Huang stunt people I could find are all male. Perhaps she uses a pseudonym for that work. The book reads like an intense espionage thriller that would be dynamite on the screen, movie or TV, so I wonder if she has also worked on a screenplay of this material. It has always been easy for me to visualize from words on the page, and that enhanced my enjoyment. The action is intense and fast-paced, the characters intriguing. However, some of that is also what limited my overall rating of the book to just 4 stars. At times it felt like I actually was watching a new TV series (and I would definitely watch if that happens). But certain situations were (almost) predictable, with standard tropes, misdirection, plot beats that would conform to TV norms of climactic scenes cueing a commercial break, even more climactic events signalling the dramatic end of an episode, as well as several cliffhangers at the end of the first season. That's only mildly a negative, just an observation, and I did enjoy it a lot, and look forward to more adventures with Cas Russell. Recommended.
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