Book review, and some thoughts on story-telling: Plastic Smile by SL Huang

Plastic Smile cover

Cas Russell, antisocial mercenary, has decided to Fight Crime. With capital letters, like in one of her friend’s comic books.

After all, she has a real-life superpower: with her instantaneous mathematical ability, she can neuter bombs or out-shoot an army. And it’s Cas’s own fault violence has been spiking in the world’s cities lately — she’s the one who crushed the organization of telepaths that had been keeping the world’s worst offenders under control. Now every drive-by or gang shooting reminds Cas how she’s failed, and taking out these scumbags one at a time is never going to be enough.

She needs to find a way to stop all the violence. At once.

But Cas’s own power has a history, one she can’t remember — or control. A history that’s creeping into the cracks in her mind and fracturing her sanity . . . just when she’s gotten herself on the hit list of every crime lord on the West Coast.

Cas isn’t going to be able to save the world. She might not even be able to save herself.

A wee while ago I reviewed books for Heroines of Fantasy (a site now sadly mothballed). One of my most pleasing finds was SL Huang’s Zero Sum Game, a furiously paced, near-SF thriller featuring the mathematically superpowered Cas Russell. Now Huang is about to release the fourth book in the series, and I was able to read it ahead of publication (for which many, many thanks).

I enjoyed it, too. Very much.

Cas is falling apart. Flashes of a past she does not remember – outside her dreams – are breaking into her conscious mind and she’s losing her grip on who she is. A stranger, Simon, might be able to help, but he is likely part of the problem, and Cas resists his offer. And, both in her resistance and in her solution to the building violence in the city, she comes into direct conflict with Rio, a very, very dangerous thing to do. Yup, that’s right. After being offstage for a couple of books, Rio is back, as formal of speech, literal of understanding, and psychopathic of behaviour as ever. With friends like him, Cas’s enemies look a lot less dangerous.

It’s no secret that I have been a fan of this series from the beginning. It’s high octane, escapist fantasy, full of explosions and car chases and secret desert hideouts. The protagonist is probably – no, certainly – not one of the good guys. Forget morally compromised – Cas didn’t have any morals to start with. Oh, she’s acquired some friends, Arthur, Checker and Pilar, along the way who are nudging her in the direction of a conscience but they are seldom too concerned by the body count that follows in her wake. Maybe Pilar is. A little.

Plastic Smile builds out of events in its predecessors and the long-term plot arc that has been building from the beginning gathers pace. Everything you’ve come to expect in Huang’s writing is present: a diverse cast; flawed characters; taut, snappy prose; a twisting, snaking plot; lots and lots of gunfire. The pace starts fast and gets faster. Gang warfare on the streets of Los Angeles is interwoven with Cas’s personal struggle to retain her identity and each plot thread pulls to tighten and tangle the other.

For me, the superpower/all guns blazing nature of these stories is window dressing for the intellectual positions they present, ones that have nothing to do with mathematics. Plastic Smile is, in large part, about free will and coercion, the right to make choices and whether – and when – it is right to constrain choices. What is the common good? And who gets to decide? People who are certain they know what is best should always be mistrusted, even in fiction, so I can’t but think Cas’s faith in Rio is misplaced. I’m also pretty sure it’s something she has no real control over: from Zero Sum Game onwards it’s been clear her relationship with him operates within limits that he knows well and she knows not at all. In fact, given her fractured mental state, is she competent to reject Simon’s help?

These are big questions and Huang deals with them reasonably deftly. Free-will and autonomy are underlying themes of the series and there are frequent philosophical undertones (Rio as justified sinner, for example). It’s violent stuff, but far from mindless violence. Moreover, despite the (always somatic) violence, I feel very little in face of the carnage littering the pages of these books. Sometimes I’d like to feel more, but the deaths dealt out in Plastic Smile are mostly to anonymous thugs or else to traffickers in children. No need to regret such deaths. We don’t, by the way, ever meet those children. Doing so would complicate the book, unbalance it, take it down into a deeper darkness. There’s nothing truly visceral about these stories. For all their action and adrenalin they are set to appeal to the head rather than the gut, and I’d have no reservations offering them to mid-teen readers.

The short version of this review is very much If you liked the earlier books, you’ll enjoy this too.  If you’ve not read Huang before, do give this series a try. (There are a couple of fairytales that show off Huang’s range as an author.) If that’s all you want to know, stop reading here.

I’ve said I’m a fan of the Russell’s Attic series, and that’s certainly true. And yet, stepping back to look at the big picture, there is an aspect of this type of story-telling I find dissatisfying. These books are the equivalent of multi-season TV programming. Taken separately, each novel is very enjoyable indeed as a few hours of fast action, high body count, low consequences escapism. Nevertheless, four books in, I’m finding the make a bad situation worse style of plotting providing diminishing returns: because the ante needs to be constantly upped, one becomes inured to action and the fast pace becomes less, rather than more, exhilarating. As one becomes accustomed to the setting and better acquainted with the characters, the long-term story arc becomes more important. The long game of Russell’s Attic concerns Cas’s background, identity and abilities. Her questions require answers. Readers want answers, a return on their investment. Drip-feeding information is less of an option and the tap needs to be turned to a faster flow, as it is in Plastic Smile. Answers, however, close down possibilities, thus, in this form of story-telling, every answer must lead to another question. It’s a balancing act between resolution and onward travel, and a very, very delicate one.

It’s a general problem with open-ended, multi-instalment story-telling. The story can’t end with the end of a book/season, so catharsis is never achieved and the reader/viewer is eternally teased but ultimately unsatisfied. It’s rather unfair of me to pick out Huang’s work in this regard since the books are well-plotted, well-written and highly enjoyable. In fact, I’ve been thinking about this rather vaguely for a while and reading Plastic Smile, and writing this review, has crystallised my thoughts. Of course, serial story-telling has been with us for a long time: Huang is working with the modern form of a tried and tested method of presentation. Nevertheless, Dickens or Gaskell knew they had a set number of instalments to complete their story and shaped their work within that constraint. It’s unclear at this point whether such a constraint exists for Russell’s Attic. I hope it does.

Buy links
Amazon US
Amazon UK

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