Cas Russell (Russell's Attic) Series
by S. L. Huang
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted August 26, 2018
Edits & Addendum on June 2, 2019
1. Zero Sum Game / 2. Null Set
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. You can still find used copies of the first version, but usually at a steep price. I haven't found any of the sequels so they may 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. I definitely want to continue with this series in the future, but at this time I'm not sure if the titles of later books might change from the originals. You can get more info on the author's website. [EDIT: Now the author confirms different titles and continuity.]
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 whom are 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, had never heard of Dawna and didn't know Courtney by name. So who referred Dawna to her 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, reminded me of a line spoken by Malcolm Reynolds in a Firefly episode: "Nothing worse than a monster who thinks he's right with God."
I've searched for more info on S. L. Huang herself, because based 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, and I've scoured the credits of shows she mentions on her bio page. Perhaps she uses a pseudonym for that work, or it could be her author name is the pseudonym. 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.
Null Set will be published in about five weeks, July 9, 2019. I was disappointed when Net Galley declined my request for an ARC, but a week or so after that Edelweiss came to the rescue. The fact I was able to read it for free had no influence on my opinions. The author says this is a rewrite, and a re-titling, of what was originally the fourth book of the series. I enjoyed it, still want to continue with the series, and rate this another 4 stars, although it's on the low side, closer to 3.5. The action is still intense, but there's too much repetition of action and dialog, with an ending that shies away from any resolution.
As has been the case with several other recent books that continue a series, I was thinking I should have re-read the first one, but didn't have the time. I remember all the major story beats, but am fuzzy on where we left off with peripheral characters. It's a few months since the end of the first book, Cas is still working with Arthur Tresting and his hacker friend Checker, and Arthur's secretary is Pilar Velasquez, formerly with Pithica (or was it one of the other covert organizations?). Cas is suffering from hallucinations of her former life, trying to come to terms with the possibility her abilities had been enhanced, altered, or manipulated by others. She not only can't remember her life prior to a few years back, she can't remember when and where she first met Rio, and he's not forthcoming with information either. She found a note, which she recognized as her own handwriting, telling her not to try remembering her past. A mysterious man has also been following her. He identifies himself as Simon, someone from her past, who wants to make sure she doesn't remember. That alone didn't make sense, because his appearance has the opposite reaction. Cas is compelled to unravel her past to find out who, and what, she really is. Is she the result of covert experimentation? If so, by whom, and why was her memory apparently wiped?
Most of the repetition revolves around Simon, who may be a telepath like Dawna Polk, may have worked with her at Pithica, may be among the ones who designed and manipulated Cas. It is possible that Dawna compelled Cas to write that warning note. It had been established that Rio was immune to Dawna's influence, and seems to be immune to Simon, but his intuition says Simon is telling the truth, that he wants to help Cas. But Cas is still reeling from the realization of how Dawna had played her, the last thing she wants is for someone else to mess with her brain. Arthur and Checker are skeptical too, and even though Cas tells Checker not to search for info on Simon, he does so anyway. There are multiple times Cas almost gives in to Simon's pleas, then she backs away, especially when her hallucinations include memories of him. And Rio. Is there anyone she can trust? Can anyone trust her? While all of that drama is going on, the team is also tracking increased criminal activity from multiple gangs, as well as several conspiracy minded milita groups, and it was already known the mob controlled a lot of the police force. Cas believes she has a solution, a way to manipulate other people's psychological profile, based on techniques originally developed by Pithica. She doesn't want anyone else messing with her brain, but is okay with her program altering other people's personalities. Rio thinks it's a good idea for Simon to mess with Cas's memory, but balks at her scheme. I'm not sure either is right, at least not for reasons I'd agree with. Can anyone be trusted with that kind of power?
Cas is what most would categorize an anti-hero. Some might say villain. She thinks she's acting on her own volition, her own moral code, but her motivations are suspect for lots of reasons. In many cases she's no less psychopathic than Rio, who scares the shit out of everyone else, yet she still trusts him. It's possible those she kills were deserving of death, but does she, or any individual, have the right to make that decision? How many times can Arthur overlook her violation of his moral code, just because she continually saves his life? Can Pilar forgive Cas for continuing to defend the man who attacked and injured her? Will Cas finally give in and let Simon do his thing? We'll have to wait for the third book (at least) to find out. Hopefully that mystery won't be strung out any further, with other mysteries opening up after that.
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