“I am nothing.
I’ll never be anything.
I couldn’t want to be something.
Apart from that, I have in me all the dreams in the world.”
― Fernando Pessoa
That’s the first time I read Jane Seville’s one and only novel, Zero at the Bone. The second, third, and fourth times I read it happened in fairly quick succession, but it’s been several years (and well more than a thousand books ago) since I last cracked the cover, so when I came up with the time and inclination to start revisiting some of the novels in the M/M Romance genre that I’ll call “retro” and have long been shelved as favorites of mine, this one, the first title I ever read in the genre, not to mention loved beyond all reason, shot to the top of my must re-read list. I’ve now read this book a half-dozen times or so, something entirely unheard of for me unless we’re talking about the series involving a certain boy wizard. Did it stand up to the tests of both time and a somewhat prolific reading frenzy from then to now? Sure. But what the hell is it that makes this book so infinitely re-readable to me?
To be honest, I’m not sure I have a clue, leastwise not one that’s easy to articulate. Zero at the Bone is not a perfect book—you’ll find if you dislike copious (and sometimes lengthy) inner monologuing that it’s a narrative devise used quite often to better expose the characters. But in the overall scheme of the plot, it has to work because the circumstances under which these two men meet, and ultimately fall in love, often precludes the intimacy or revelatory nature of conversation. Exposure to the reader is critical in order to build a sense of empathy for their conflict; to each other, though, it’s risky both to their physical and emotional wellbeing. Their lack of communication is often nothing more than self-preservation, sometimes it’s a matter of sacrifice, but it’s a necessary device and, overall, it works.
If you dislike when a character is written with any sort of grammatical dialect, you’ll probably find you dislike this book, because brilliantly (I think) the author makes D—the man who is not only zero at the bone but is on his way to becoming zero down to his very soul—real by making him imperfect in nearly every aspect of his being, including his rural patois that often makes him seem a contradiction. He may not be eloquent or articulate himself well, but all that does is make him a contrast not only to the over-educated Jack but also to the cool, calculated, and deceptively intelligent assassin that he has become. His manner of speaking lends itself to a realism so basic that the reader can “hear” D’s voice, imagine his accent, and therefore he becomes more than words on the page. He is flawed and broken and would be considered sociopathic almost down to the letter of the disorder…if he didn’t have a moral compass. But it’s that code of ethics, albeit an arguably shaky one, that keeps him towing a sympathetic line and makes him human to the reader.
Dr. Jack Francisco is a less complex man, though he’s no less intriguing for it. Jack is a maxillofacial surgeon—skilled, respected, compassionate, every good thing a doctor can be—when the rug is pulled out from under his life after witnessing a murder; not just any murder, however, but one orchestrated by a crime family the Feds have been trying to nail for years but can’t seem to keep witnesses alive long enough to bear testimony against. Jack becomes the prosecution’s star witness to the crime, the one witness who will be the hammer that drives the nail into the Dominguez brothers’ proverbial coffin, but to do so he must give up everything of his life he’s ever known, everything he’s worked so hard to achieve, to enter the witness protection program. It’s a lot for a man to compensate for, his figurative death, the loss of everyone and everything he’s ever known, but Jack is nothing if not dedicated to doing what is right not what is easy. Does he deserve to be a bit pissy from time to time? Yeah, I think his pissy card got a validation stamp the day D came to kill him.
Some of the appeal of Zero at the Bone is playing armchair psychologist and poking around at D to try and figure out what motivates him and makes him tick; I think he weighs in as a fairly good puzzle until he begins to unravel himself for the reader. He’s the super-assassin with the armored heart, who finds his kryptonite in a man who is just strong enough (sometimes barely, it seems) to love him as he is, disassemble him as he was, even making him weak at times, forcing him to be a better man and then making him whole, only to watch him shatter. D is the way he is for a reason, D is who he has become by circumstance. D and Jack together are destiny set in motion (introducing a secondary plot line), and their togetherness and the danger to both of them from different factions and for different reasons, breeds a connection that in the harsh light of reality looks tenuous at best, could possibly be considered a smidge of Stockholm Syndrome at worst, but is ultimately believable because the author makes it so in her ability to make these characters solid and distinct and complementary opposites–the one who is sworn to do no harm and the other who has sworn to do no harm to those who don’t deserve it. It’s a hair-splitting delineation but it works.
Jack and D’s relationship is born of proximity and grows into necessity, when D makes the choice not to kill but to protect Jack. There are no subtle nuances about these two men or their romance; this is heart-tugging about as subtle as a punch to the gut, which, when some other things may not be working to perfection, is a redemption that places this book at the top of my list of all-time favorites for a reason. The feelz brought it all home to me.
If I’d had my druthers, there is a place at which I’d have preferred the story to end other than where it did. Why? Well, because I think the end felt tacked on as compensation for readers who demand more than a happy-for-now ending. In speaking of that boy wizard—if you didn’t enjoy his “Nineteen Years Later” epilogue, be forewarned that that’s the way the finale of Zero at the Bone feels, though it didn’t make me love the book any less. All it really did is make me feel disappointed that in the four-and-a-half years since this book found the light of day, there’s never been a sequel.