Zero at the Bone

Zero at the Bone - Jane Seville I think it's worth noting at the outset that I avoid m/m romance as a rule. Something about slash as a concept rubs me the wrong way. It's as genuine or gay as girl-on-girl porn, though admittedly a bit less exploitative. I feel like it fetishizes the other, and that makes me uncomfortable.So it takes some hype to get me off my high horse to read a m/m story, and hype is something Zero at the Bone had in spades after its performance in the DABWAHA contest. Thankfully, it truly did live up to the hype for me. I can't say that happens often.Poor Dr. Jack Francisco just wanted a cookie. But that delay to his departure from work one day put him in the wrong place at the wrong time, leaving him the vulnerable witness to a mob hit. Suddenly his life is turned upside down as he's whisked from his life in Baltimore and hid in Vegas by Witness Protection. It's upended even further when he walks into his apartment and sees the armed hitman waiting to do him in.But it turns out that the hitman, known only as D, doesn't really want to do it. He's a hired gun, for certain, but he makes a point of only taking the contracts on people who deserve them - child rapists, murderers, swindlers and the like. He's only here because he's been blackmailed into it. Once he gets a look at Jack, sees his strength in the face of death, he not only can't kill him, he becomes determined to make sure no one else does either. So Jack and D end up on the run together, moving from cheap motel to cheap motel before hunkering down in a safe house waiting for the mob trial.Zero at the Bone's strength is in the two main characters. The book asks the reader to question right and wrong through D's character. Can a killer be moral? Are the crimes D commits justifiable? If not, can he be redeemed? D may not have taken the contracts to kill innocents, but he had still killed for money. His last hit was on an art dealer who dealt in Nazi confiscated art, laundering the works so their Jewish connections can't be traced. Did that man really deserve to die? The suspense plot's action works with these questions in mind. Just when you think you have D figured out, he's tested again and we can judge his reactions and motivations.The slow-burning romance and intimacy plot works alongside these questions and the suspense. Jack, trying to humanize this killer who's helping him out, keeps asking D questions, questions D has been avoiding for over a decade. The more he tells Jack about himself, the more he learns about himself, and the more he wants to tell Jack all the things he's never told anyone. Since the novel assumes D's fundamentally a good man, the intimacy grows out of Jack trying to figure out how a good man can kill for money and live with himself.There's none of that "gee we're in danger, but treacherous bodies demand lovin' right here, right now" quality common to romantic suspense. All this soul searching, self-doubt and physical intimacy takes place as they're laying low in a secluded cabin. They're stuck in a home together, forced to rely on each other, and the romance grows organically from that proximity and need. It starts as tentative hand-holding, then grows into a drunken lay, and finally matures into a give-and-take sexual relationship with openly acknowledged feelings. Jack wonders if it's just misplaced gratitude for D not killing him, but Seville makes it plain that this is a mature love that will last.The novel falters, I think, in its editing. Not copy editing, as the prose is beautiful, but in story fat trimming. As wonderful as Jack and D were, the secondary characters were less so, and some we could have done without entirely. Why did Jack and D's closest friends or colleagues have to be women? What did D's guardian angel X add to the story beyond deus ex machina plot solutions? The concept of a shadowy circuit of contract killers was most believable early in the novel; as she added more characters, interaction and complexity to it, it became much less plausible. Additionally, the novel should have ended at the end of Chapter 29, cutting out Chapter 30 and the 20-page Epilogue. All the additional writing did was ask more questions and dilute the conflict resolution, making the ending less satisfying.I also had problems with Jack's character. While I liked Jack, thought he was a perfect contrast for D and liked the role he played, I did find him to be playing the heroine's role in many respects. He always needed to be saved, he was the one trying to work through D's psyche with mushy feelings and he had these cute friendships with clear fag hags. I felt like he could have been replaced with a female character and all the book would have lost is the drama of D wrestling briefly with his sexuality. Maybe that's unnecessarily critical of me, but I can't shake the feeling that he was like a tomboy with a dick.Despite the space I allow them here, these qualms are relatively minor in what was otherwise a great book. Taken as a whole, it's character-driven, evenly paced romantic suspense that asks you to think. I recommend it highly.