Monday, August 16, 2010

Review: Zero at the Bone by Jane Seville

After witnessing a mob hit, surgeon Jack Francisco is put into protective custody to keep him safe until he can testify. A hitman known only as D is blackmailed into killing Jack, but when he tracks him down, his weary conscience won't allow him to murder an innocent man. Finding in each other an unlikely ally, Jack and D are soon on the run from shadowy enemies. Forced to work together to survive, the two men forge a bond that ripens into unexpected passion. Jack sees the wounded soul beneath D's cold, detached exterior, and D finds in Jack the person who can help him reclaim the man he once was. As the day of Jack's testimony approaches, he and D find themselves not only fighting for their lives... but also fighting for their future. A future together.

I'm a little behind the times on this one- Zero at the Bone came in second in this year's DA BWAHA tournament.  It's the first time a GLBT novel has ranked anywhere near that high, so I figured it must be something special.  I was right.

I don't read a ton of m/m romance, but I've read enough to be at least familiar with the sub-genre.  This is by far the best written m/m romance I've ever read.  Jack and D are real people with serious, complex problems.  And while it took one of them some time accept the attraction, there was refreshingly little gay angst.  Jack and D have enough problems, serious life and death problems, without worrying about how family or society will feel about their relationship.

The outside threats to the couple weren't straightforward, either.  Jack has the mob after him, which is dangerous enough.  But D has been in the business for years and has built up some treacherous enemies himself.  The mystery of exactly who is pulling the strings kept me guessing through the middle of the book.

There were some things that bothered me about the book, however.  Jack and D had a tendency to squabble, which got annoying after a while.  I know that fights are often used in romance novels to up the tension and signal buried attraction.  But somehow that didn't work between these two.  It felt like the same argument over and over again, even if the subject wasn't the same.  I'd rather have seen some real conflict in those scenes than fights that never go anywhere.

Toward the end of the novel, D does some things to make it safe for Jack to go back to his old life.  But he refused to tell Jack at first what he's done.  The reader knows, so there's no mystery there, and there was nothing wrong or shocking in his actions, so I don't know what the point was.  It just created more unnecessary conflict in the relationship.  D had already revealed a lot about his life as a hitman, so why does he feel the need to hide this?  I was ready for these two to get their happy ending already, and it was frustrating to me that this refusal to share caused problems.

Which leads me to my biggest problem with the book.  Romance has expanded to encompass a lot of things-- heroes can be cowboys or vampires or, in the case of D, even hitmen.  They can be set in the past or the future or on a whole different planet.  For many readers, including me, the couple can be gay, straight, or more than a couple.  But there is one contract you can't break.  There has to be a Happily Ever After.  You can even bend that one a little bit and leave them with a Happy For Now in certain circumstances.  But there is no Happily Ever anything for Jack and D at the end of this book, which seriously impacts my reading satisfaction.

If the author had finished with Chapter 29, I could have believed as a reader in Jack and D's happy ending.  But the author spends the last 10% of the book (30 pages or so?  I don't know for sure as I read this on my Kindle and it gives me percentages, not pages.) showing Jack and D having relationship trouble.  Realistic?  Yes.  But romance lovers read for fantasy, not reality.  They clearly love each other, but neither is happy in the relationship as it stands on the last page, and that is a disappointment to me as a reader.  There's a note after the last line that says, "Jack and D's adventures aren't over," and invites the reader to visit the author's website.  The website has a couple of short stories and says that Ms Seville is working on her next book featuring these two heroes, which is good to know.  But I want some sort of relationship resolution now, in this book.  I don't want to have to find the author's website or wait for the next book.  It doesn't have to be Happily Ever After.  I'm OK with a sequel, although you don't see that too often in romance novels.  I'd like to read more about these two characters.  But to give me a satisfying reading experience I need at least a Happy For Now ending.

To sum up, the characters were well defined with exceptional depth.  But there were some problems, especially with the ending.  Overall, I'd give this one a B+.

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