Book Review: The Russell’s Attic Series by SL Huang

Cas Russell, Zero Sum Game, SL Huang, Russell's Attic, math superpower, thriller, action, book review

I first heard of SL Huang when Tor Books announced they had picked up the North American rights to her thriller series Russell’s Attic. (Up till now, Huang had opted to self-publish her books, citing her disillusionment with the US copyright laws and her desire to make her work available on Creative Commons). Intrigued, I clicked on her website and found that she’s not only a great writer, she’s also a hell of an interesting individual in her own right – for example, not only is she an MIT graduate with a degree in math, she’s also a Hollywood stuntwoman and a firearms expert who has worked with actors like Danny Glover and Jason Momoa! How cool is that?

Also cool is her Russell’s Attic series featuring Cas Russell, a woman whose superhero power is that she’s really, really good at math. Good enough that she can use it to calculate angles and trajectories, giving her the ability jump two storeys high, knock out baddies twice her size, dodge bullets and laser sights, and shoot guns with unerring accuracy. So far, so good. But then Cas takes on a new job to rescue a young girl caught up in a drug cartel and what looks like a fairly simple, straightforward job turns into something far worse as Cas finds herself up against a powerful psychic with the ability to control people’s minds (think Kilgrave from Jessica Jones but with a far more global master plan).

First up, can I just say these books are seriously addictive. I pretty much bulldozed my way through all four books and I’m now left twiddling my thumbs, eagerly anticipating the fifth. The action is fast-paced, the dialogue snappy with plenty of laugh-out-loud lines (Cas is super snarky and has me howling with her one-liners) and the characters are incredibly likeable with hints of further development in their backstories. And talk about backstory. Cas is a mysterious individual with a past that is hidden even from herself. Huang drops a few clues in the first couple of books, but it’s not til the third and fourth books that we start finding out a lot more about Cas’s past and who she really is.

There’s also plenty of great racial diversity – almost everyone in the books is a POC and Cas herself, in spite of her Anglo-Saxon name, is described as ‘short, brown and stocky’  – definitely the antithesis of the usual long-limbed, lean and foxy female protagonist. And once the main cast of characters have been established in the first couple of books, their warm camaraderie and affection for each other really shines through, even despite (and in spite) of Cas’s prickly lone-wolf personality. There is also a very interesting character in the form of Rio, a psychopathic Asian assassin who happens to be the only person in the world Cas trusts and who everyone else fears. (funny aside: whenever I think Rio, I immediately picture the boyfriend from Jem and the Holograms, but I’m pretty sure that’s not what Huang was going for!)

Also – the math. The math aspect of Cass’s superpower was what first drew me to the books – it’s such an intriguing set-up. And Huang delivers on this, turning Cas into some kind of souped-up female MacGuyver that can solve almost any situation with her genius for calculations. So that means fun stuff like Cass being able to eavesdrop from the street on a conversation in a house just by amping up sound waves using a trash can, a metal bowl, a bird feeder and an umbrella. (Told you she’s like MacGuyver!) And for those who know next to nothing about math, like yours truly, don’t worry – it’s nothing that will go over your head. In fact, Huang once said she was worried the books were too math-y for layman readers, only to be told by her beta readers not to worry about it and that they actually wanted to see more math, a request she complied with and which I was glad to see in the books!

The best thing about stumbling across this series right now is the fact that Huang has thus far published four books and two related short stories about Cas and her friends so there’s plenty of material for new fans to snap up. The bad thing? Once you get through it, you’ve got to wait for the fifth book. Right now, Huang’s still a fairly unknown entity in the mainstream but now that Tor Books has acquired the American rights and she’s being presented by Russell Galen of the prestigious Scovil Galen Ghosh Literacy Agency, I can just see the books becoming an instant bestseller with perhaps a TV series in the vein of Dark Angel or Orphan Black. Yup, in my humble opinion, these books are that good.


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