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cover of Zero Sum Game

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. She can take any job for the right price and shoot anyone who gets in her way.

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

Someone who’s already warped Cas’s thoughts once before, with her none the wiser.

Cas should run. Going up against a psychic with a god complex isn’t exactly a rational move, and saving the world from a power-hungry telepath isn’t her responsibility. But she isn’t about to let anyone get away with violating her brain — and besides, she’s got a small arsenal and some deadly mathematics on her side. There’s only one problem...

She doesn’t know which of her thoughts are her own anymore. (source)

I came out of Captain America: The Winter Soldier going, "This is totally like this book I'm reading!" I have made it utterly no secret that I love Steve's magical flying shield and the way he chooses to use it in fights. In fact, I would watch two hours of fight scenes to watch Steve fling that sucker around with split second decisions about trajectory and *mumblemutter* forces. So this book was a lot of fun (neat characters with diverse talents! interpersonal conflict! rad superpowers!), but also frustrating because of the writing.

Cas doesn't have a specific totem; she uses everything at her disposal and the math flying through her head to make calculations help her take people out with rocks, bust through a group of gun-wielding criminals, and get out of tough scrapes. If she did have a totem, it would be a loaded gun (but not a Glock, I get it book, she hates Glocks). It would be even better filmed (dear Hollywood, I will write this screenplay, call me!), but it's a pretty great premise even in book form.

With that sort of skill, Cas would be unstoppable, and in so many scenarios, she's absolutely brutal with her ability. Zero Sum Game is about what happens when her ability to manipulate the world around her with numbers and calculations utterly fails in the face of mental abilities much stronger than the ability to see the Matrix. Cas's ability to see mathematical solutions to situations around her reminded me a little of the visual trick used in the Lucy trailer:


The conceit of the book is interesting enough, but you can't sustain a book with "the character is great at math!". I skimmed most of the longer sections that dealt explicitly with math or related topics, especially later in the book. I don't know anything about high level math. I also don't know anything above third grade math, either, so no matter how carefully I read it, it's never going to mean anything. Word problems have always been my enemy, so I never grokked half of the explanations Cas tossed out about what she was doing. Math nerds will totally get it! If not, I feel like there's going to be a lot of skimming for some folks.

Cas is more than her mathematical prowess, though: she's violent, she's a loner, she's incredibly lonely, she desperately needs a few good friends, and way less recreational substance abuse during downtime, when her ability threatens to overwhelm her. Cas Russell's drinking problem is Dean Winchester in Season 8 levels of fucked up. Cas copes less well than Dean Winchester. That's messed up.


When I finally got sucked in for good around chapter nine (which took me three weeks to reach), I finished the book in a day because yes, secret agencies! Conspiracies! Nerdy computer geeks! Sweet, sweet revenge! Shady pasts! This book hit several of my favorite topics:

1. TRUST: Cas doesn't trust anyone except Rio the Sociopath, doing God's Work. Rio talks like he's drugged, kills like a machine, and is not Cas's friend, which is weird since Cas puts her faith in him without fail multiple times in the book for reasons never quite made clear. Rio "values her" more than himself (RED ALERT). It got to a point, mid-way through when everything seemed FUBAR that I couldn't believe the book wasn't going to address the parade of pink elephants from all the Rio Kool-Aid Cas was drinking. WILL THIS BE EXPLAINED IN THE SEQUEL? I really liked Rio, even more when everyone else was terrified of him, but damn, I sure don't trust him much at all. SHADY CHARACTER ALERT, made super interesting by the fact that the whole book is about a psychic that can alter your behavior and thoughts, and how Cas handles being manipulated by such a person, while being manipulated by a person without those skills. I'm so suspicious. I don't trust you, Rio.

Other than the weird trust issues at the center of Cas and Rio's odd relationship, Cas makes friends with Arthur and Checker, a PI/hacker team. She makes several bad impressions, there's some mutual betrayal as well as mutual butt-saving, and eventually Cas gets adopted. The book wants you to believe Cas is the one doing the adopting, but back in reality where Cas doesn't have great (spoiler: any, at all) interpersonal skills, Arthur and Checker totally adopt her. I was glad, because Rio is not necessarily the be-all-end-all of friendships. Give that friendship bracelet to someone else, Cas. I am totally on Arthur and Checker's side re: Rio. SORRY.

you can't sit with us!

2. FRIENDSHIP: In a book about assassins, deadly freelancers, explosions, worldwide conspiracies, and the apocalyptic death and destruction of L.A., I did not expect to find a book so concerned with friends: not having them, having them but being dubious about them, wanting them and being crushed when they don't want you back, being a person worthy of friendship and how hard that is, being a shitty friend with good intentions, being a great friend and still fucking up, being a creepy friend who likes to beat on you (HI RIO), etc.

Even when Cas positions herself as someone who works best alone, she's quick to fall into camaraderie with the people she meets and quick to tease and open up in despite of herself. She's quick to hurt and be hurt, and that reveals a gaping loneliness that persists throughout the book. It becomes especially explicit when she interacts with Rio. WHO ARE YOU, RIO??

3. MORALITY: Oh, shades of gray, my old friend. There's three groups of remorseless killers here (well, maybe four if we split Cas and Rio up, but for the sake of my argument, let's say three since I suspect Cas models herself on Rio without realizing it). I found this particular tidbit interesting once Arthur finally calls Cas out on how she's so good at mowing through situations with violence and lack of concern for the people who end up super dead or grievously injured at the end of it.



Compared to the type of killing Rio does (remorseless mass homicide), and the type of killing the other villains do (it's for the greater good! it's not like we kill EVERYONE, just the people that DISTRACT us from our super villain adventures!), Cas's killing became very rote and perfunctory. Watching Cas deal with being called to account for her somewhat destructive approach to human life was what made my spider sense start tingling when I got to the very end of the story and realized that in reality, I probably still don't know who Cas truly is. Not even Cas knows who she is or how she feels beyond "do the job, survive, eliminate opposition". I suspect Cas is only finding out who Cas is by the end of the story, which ends on a note of continuation for the sequel.

Meanwhile, I have to go back to the writing, which was a major stumbling block for me. I read a lot of bad writing because I persist in reading in fandoms that will produce awesomely plotted, terribly written but absolutely charming coffeeshop, magical bonding, or soulmate AUs with very sincere emotions, because I am weak. Due to this, I can't honestly tell the difference between writing that's traditionally published or self-published because the quality of my reading swings around wildly within any given week. I don't believe a book has to be a canonical literary masterpiece to be enjoyable (evidence: this book), but I really considered not finishing because it took me nine chapters to read it for any length of time. But really, my judgment is flawed. I once read 50k of super shitty Final Fantasy VIII fic written in second person where Squall and Seifer got turned into dinosaurs and liked it. Don't trust me.

Once I reached the point where I devoured it in 14 hours (because seriously, what that fuck, Cas? What is your deal with Rio? WHAT IS HAPPENING? YOU ARE A CLEVER WOMAN, this is so suspicious, what is going on??? I need to know!) I wasn't putting it down unless someone pried it from my hands after I was stone cold dead. I took this book to work and read it behind the counter. I work retail, and anyone who's ever worked retail knows the dire consequences for leaning while using an electronic device. Those are the lengths I went to finish, so obviously it ended up not being an issue.

Probably appropriate would be to say that the writing felt self-conscious and unsure of itself. It's nervous, very intent on explaining exactly what it's doing, so the bits meant to be subtle aren't. It needs less periods, and more complicated, stream of consciousness traits specific to first person narratives. It doesn't feel immersive like first person narration generally does to me. If the first person isn't invasive and all up in my face, I can't buy it. Sign of a good first person narrator is that I hate it intensely, with the entirety of my being, for the first chapter. Here I was just bored.

Because eventually I got used to it and made it through to the end of the book, I wondered if this overly stilted style that reads like a third person version of first person was intentional because of revelations about Cas's very vague past. It doesn't feel like first person, but wait, Cas is having a little trouble with personhood, so clearly something's happening. But I still suspect that if my guess is right about the likely Swiss-cheese nature of Cas's head, this narrative doesn't quite manage to bridge the gap between "whoa her head's sort of weird, right?" and "puzzling and distracting first person narrative choice".

Well, it's either brilliant or I just wasted hours of my life trying to figure out if it was brilliant. I'm going to go with a 30% chance of being right about this being on purpose. If I am, I sure hope we see more of the Cas that Arthur and Checker adopt and less robo-Cas in the sequel, which comes out in 2015. SEQUELS.

Additional Notes:

  • I now have the headcanon that Cas can drive absolutely anything. Stick? Sure. Big rig? Absolutely. Any type of motorcycle? Yes. Speedboat? Sure thing. Helicopter? That, too. Tank? Why not!

  • Every time Rio appeared in the book I rarely pictured him entering a scene, just suddenly appearing, like the sociopathic creepy stalker Teen Wolf S1 Derek Hale wishes he could be. HE ALSO WEARS A TAN DUSTER. If you're going to be sociopathic killing machine, you might as well look fashionable while doing so. And anyway, all those pockets are probably dead useful. They hold all his secrets.

  • Crying over the painful reality of Cas's casually racist disregard over a bunch of dead kids, after complaining about racial profiling.

  • CAS RUSSELL, WEAPONS HOARDER. I will never get over her fixation on having a weapon. She's like the deadly mercenary version of a determined chipmunk ramming nuts into her mouth, except she's packing grenades, knives, and various types of firearms. I have this hilarious mental image of cartoon!Arthur waiting by a truck waving his arms going "we have to go!" as cartoon!Cas runs toward him trailing various deadly weapons in a trail behind her because she's carrying too many, done in the style of Nimona.

  • I don't believe in character death. HEAR THAT, BOOK? I DON'T BELIEVE IN CHARACTER DEATH. But nice try.

  • In dramatic thriller movies when huge cities become pawns in the power struggle between multiple powerful entities/the heroes, there's always a huge cost. Some poor sucker city takes a beating. Usually it's just infrastructure (regardless of what anyone says the L.A. destruction scene in The Day After Tomorrow is brilliant and chilling, I want to make out with the team that put that together) but this book was cold as ice and heartless. Everything about the suffering in this book aims the pain inward. METAPHORS.

  • SHADY GUYS WHO PAY TAXES and defends application of taxes to citizens. ♥ ♥ ♥

Other reviews:
The Book Smugglers, Strange Charm, World in a Satin Bag, Little Lion's Lynnet's, yours?


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