ZERO SUM GAME by S.L. Huang is the first in an urban fantasy super-hero series — okay, reviews call it SF noir, but protagonist Cass Russell is just as much a metahuman as the cast of Heroine Complex, though with a pretense of being more realistic (a good pretense — this one worked for me). And yes, here there be smaller.
Cass is a precog who reminds me a lot of Marvel’s Mad Thinker. Just as he predicts events with his computer so as to manipulate and take down his enemies, so does Cass, though on a more limited level. She has a metahuman mathematical ability to calculate angles, vectors and force enables her to know where a bullet will go before it leaves the gun (Huang makes this believable enough to work). She also knows how to fire bullets or apply her own strength to gain maximum, John Woo-type physical effects.
Her friend Rio, a DEXTER-type serial killer/sadist (he’s got religion so he channels his lust for cruelty into targeting Bad People) acts as go-between for a woman named Dawna, hiring Cass to retrieve Dawna’s sister from her life as a drug mule. This, of course, proves much more complicated than expected. First, Rio didn’t send the message. Then there’s a PI, Arthur, who’s on the same case and doesn’t trust Cass (and justifiably despises Cass’s attitude toward collateral damage). Then it turns out Dawna isn’t the young woman’s sister after all.
She is, instead, the bad guy. A secret conspiracy has given her pseudo-realistic telepathy to match Cass’s pseudo-realistic precognition: Dawna can micro-analyze every twitch and expression you make, know exactly what you’re thinking and figure out exactly what to say to manipulate you. Even as Cass, Rio and Arthur start working against the conspiracy, they have to wonder if Dawna’s implanted them with commands to turn them into sleeper agents.
I almost gave up on this one early on because of the hard-boiled voice. Don’t get me wrong, I like that voice, and I’ve used it myself (here, for instance) but it’s used so much in urban fantasy it’s kind of a turnoff. Everyone from Harry Dresden and Anita Blake onwards sounds world-weary, snarky and cynical. It’s one reason I went out of my way to make the protagonist of No One Can Slay Her non-hard-boiled, and why I resisted writing Impossible Takes a Little Longer in first person, for fear I’d adopt the same voice (but KC starts out the book upbeat and optimistic, which makes a surprising difference). I’m glad I stuck with it, because I enjoyed it. As I’ve said before, offbeat superhero stories are a weakness of mine, and Zero Sum Game fits the bill.
That said, I think the book really fell apart at the end. The final psi-battle with Dawna in Cass’s mind doesn’t make any sense given Dawna’s power set: I can’t see any way it works without Dawna having real telepathy, and she doesn’t.
And then there’s the morality. The big dilemma for the book is that Dawna’s employers are good guys, or at least antiheroes. They’re manipulating politicians to create a better world (no hunger, no poverty!), they’re eliminating drug cartels; in opposing them, is Cass on the right side? The possibility she isn’t really gnaws at her, especially when she learns the conspiracy funds itself by leaching money from crime syndicates and other bad guys. In crippling the conspiracy (I’d name it, but my mind’s gone completely blank), aren’t Cass and her crew making the world a worse place?
I suppose it’s possible that all these moral qualms are because Dawna’s still got a hook in Cass’s mind, but I think we’re supposed to take them seriously. I didn’t: much like Dawna’s powers in that final fight, Huang’s straining to keep the moral balls in the air. The conspiracy, whatever its goals, kills innocent people, which is kind of a huge red flag for me. Heck, it appears to be for Huang: a government official who had a couple of Cass’s friends killed in the name of the greater good dies in short order. Yeah, he’s a rat, by why is the conspiracy any better? At one point Dawna brags that a woman she mindwiped and reprogrammed is now completely free of the trauma she used to bear. Surely she could treat trauma without erasing her (a point nobody makes).
It would help, I think, if we knew more detail about the good deeds. What exactly is their political endgame? When Dawna manipulates politicians, what are they rewired to do? I don’t blame Huang for not getting too specific about politics — these days, things are changing at the drop of a hat — but something a little more specific (what if they got cops to drop the “blue wall of silence” about police misdeeds?) would have helped sellme.
Of course, as Arthur points out, Cass is pretty coldblooded about people. I’ll see what happens when I get to the second book in the series.
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