There is gonna be a LOT to unpack.
TL:dr- This is a great fucking book. If you like supernatural, crime and can handle some Spanish get it. Yes amazon link srry.
LONG VERSION. Some spoilers may happen.
I was given a copy of this book a bit after it came out by a dear friend who had read it and decided I HAD to read it.
Zero Saints starts with the kind of wry, first person humor during what builds to be an ass kicking that I like. The first four pages let us know that we’re in for a wild ass ride. The violence isn’t of the sort that is immediate and all the way in your face, Gabino’s style in this book is intimate, we are in Fernando’s skin (at least I am and we’ll get to that) so in the beginning of this book we know a few things. We know Fernando (not his name yet) is in trouble, big fucking trouble.
When I saw the line about Fernando praying to la Santa Muerta, y’alls….my lil woo self got all fucking excited. Following the mention came the first of much Spanish and I have enough Spanish to have gotten the gist of what was going on and this brings me to my first pointed remark. I have seen some reviews (too goddamn many) that make a point to complain about the amount of Spanish. Like…okay I don’t want to quote Junot Diaz but, the quote about folks willing to read Elvish or whatever and who will bitch about Spanish.
There is a lot of Spanish. Personally, I can read more Spanish than I can speak and I am not at all fluent. That said, when I felt like it really mattered, I looked shit up because like most of us I carry a computer in my pocket and the internet exists.
The action picks up very fast and things get real bloody. While the action is revving up, I really love that there is a low key grace in Gabino’s writing. It is brutal, it does go from 10 to 100 and there is beauty there. We know from jump that Fernando is no super badass, his fear is written in a very real way that gives us a glimpse of a well written and rich character.
Details like how Fernando stops being able to really think with everything happening, really grabbed me. This book is a really great example of why I love first person POV so much. Using this POV in this book gives us skin to skin contact, we get to be intimate with the story and with Fernando and that my friends, is my shit.
I don’t want to spoil stuff plotwise so let’s talk about skill and craft.
First let’s talk why I love how Fernando is written and thus love being so close to his skin. Fernando is written as a kind of mysterious type, we get glimpses of a life he’s lived before. he had problems. He has nightmares, he needs oxies to sleep on the regular but in particular during what’s going on in the book. We get this bloody meaty human which in noir circles can be sparse.
Gabino does a few sly little shifts to second person and I am here for it. What makes these so effective is that, the shift slows the eye. We are dragged into the reality of this situation almost gently and then there’s blood and teeth on the floor. Gabino does an excellent job of balancing Fernando’s horrific situation with glimpses into his tender heart.
He has a crush on a girl, this bit when we meet Yolanda is exquisite:
“How do you tell a woman you like that you’re a fucking coward?”
In the context of the things Fernando has experienced, the glimpses of his past we know he is not a coward and this line, just got me. I love a cis het dude with some self awareness and written with tenderness. Yes, this is a violent as fuck book that has a heart. Like most of the noir I love, our main character is someone I want to slap and hug and then put the fuck to bed.
It takes a firm grasp on one’s masculinity and a deft hand to write cis het men with heart. It just does. Especially in noir, especially when there is also violence. Too often, I think a lot of cis male characters wind up being all balls and no heart and that is boring. If you write cis het dudes, read this book.
Now, let’s talk about the super natural aspects of this book.
His use of diasporic spiritual practices is superb. When we meet Consuelo, that is where things get really deep to me. Again, I don’t want to be too spoilery but I do want to mention that, in researching to do this review, I noticed a lot of folks didn’t comment on the loveliness of the spirtuality and how the supernatural is handled in this book. That bugs me.
The introduction of Ogun changes the tone of the situation in this book. When I first read it, I said Oh Shit out loud. The violence and drug dealing by themselves didn’t quite give me the gravity of bringing in Ogun as part of the action. I think other readers, especially those unfamiliar with Afro/Latinx diasporic religions probably missed out on that. I am pretty sure that my familiarity, bred my excitement in this case.
In chapter 5 and the end of chapter 4, the depth of love Fernando is shown really touched me. Again I don’t wanna be spoilery but, the ritual and the egg, that’s fuckin love y’all. The novenas given to Fernando, the way in the book the prayers are set out in full touched my heart. These moments of love and hope are what balance the brutality of much of the book. I think in a lot of other reviews I read, I was missing the appreciation of as I said above, tenderness.
Before I go much further, let’s kind of ease to the end here because I wanna be super spoilery and I hate that.
The introduction of the Russian was another great touch to me and a perfect example of cross cultural understanding. This is transgressive because there is no push/pull in how Nando and the Russian communicate and come together. That is fucking real.
The thing I love best about this book is that without the tenderness, moments of gentle handling and sadness it would STILL be a good book.
Gabino Iglesias is a bad mother fucker.
WITH the tenderness, love, and tears this is a great book. Like most books I love, this little gorgeous thing is meaty. It is bloody not just in the violent sense but in the sense of it having a pulse, this work has a heart that as you are pulled into Nando’s fucked up life, you feel it in your hands.
And okay y’all, I don’t say this often but this book ended perfectly. Just, y’all it fucked me up in the best way. And like books I love, I want more.
What is greater is that I’m more familiar with Gabino’s work and hustle and I am here for it. This book is on my list of recommendations for actually transgressive work that lives outside of the Great White Western Ideals and does so in shining, haunting, bloody fashion.
Go read it. Read Gabino’s tweeter.