I struggled with what to review this week. I read four books that qualified, and they were all so different that I just couldn’t choose. I usually write these reviews on the weekend before, but here I sit at 8:00 on Tuesday night, dithering.
I could have reviewed There You’ll Find Me (grade: D) by Jenny Jones, a Christian romance that will likely be a better movie than it was a book. I mean, it was fine, and for the right audience, I would enthusiastically recommend it…but it was a little too preachy for me. The next candidate was Kit Oliver’s Cattle Stop, a m/m romance set on a farm. Solid B work from Kit, whose debut novel The Place Between was one of the standouts of the summer. But I just reviewed a romance novel two weeks ago, and last week’s review had a strong romance component as well, and I wanted something different. And then there was Shadowed Steel, an A effort from Chloe Neill, author of my favorite Urban Fantasy series, The Chicagoland Vampires. Shadowed Steel is the third book in its sequel series, Heirs of Chicagoland, which means that I would essentially be reviewing the sixteenth book in an ongoing series, a tricky endeavor even for people way better at this than I am.
While I’ve got you here, though, I do want to say that Shadowed Steel was…perfect. This is the first time since the original series ended that I felt like the sequel could be a worthy successor. Things are finally firing on all cylinders, so if you are on the fence, you should make tracks to your local purveyor of fine books and pick this one up. It’s awesome.
Which brings us to the winner of the steel cage death match, and that is Zero Sum Game by S.L. Huang.
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, and she'll take any job for the right price.
As far as Cas knows, she’s the only person around with a superpower...until she 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.
Cas should run, like she usually does, but for once she's involved. There’s only one problem...
She doesn’t know which of her thoughts are her own anymore.
Part of the reason that I didn’t want to review this book is that I just don’t know where to start. It’s a thriller set in a near-term, vaguely dystopian future where there are vaguely-horrible bad guys who have unlocked a secret to mind-control…and are using that secret to convince the vaguely less-horrible good guys that they—the bad guys—are not bad guys at all. A total “these are not the bad guys you are looking for” vibe.
It’s a plot that needs to be filmed. The action is propulsive, the plot unspools at a truly terrifying rate, and the fight scenes, with Cas figuring out the precise path of seventeen bullets, all firing at her simultaneously…well, that’s something that a Wachowski needs to get a piece of.
I found the book compelling. I started it in the wee hours of one morning, read till the book fell on my chest a couple hours later, and picked it right back up the next day, finishing it that evening. It’s unrelenting.
And it’s good. The science seems to hold together, and the protagonist actually has MATH as a super-power. She has a mentor who is a terrifying, likely verifiable, psychopath, and a new friend whose mind is so compromised that he is a delicious combo of really necessary and completely unreliable. Toss in a sarcastic hacker for good measure, and you have quite the A-Team.
But this is the first book in a series, and I was not at all compelled to read the second book. I’m not sure why that is. Maybe I think that this is not a story that they can tell over and over. Maybe I think that the psycho sidekick doesn’t work in a series. Maybe I just didn’t like Cas all that much.
However, as a stand-alone story, I’ll give it a—