Skin Game
by Ava Gray, contemporary (2009)
Berkley, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-425-23153-1


The pairing of the hitman with scruples and the con who seeks revenge is a staple of every story that fancies itself a dark and edgy romantic thriller, but such a pairing is so rare in the romance genre that Ava Gray's Skin Game intrigues me based on the premise alone.

Kyra Marie Beckwith has an unusual ability - she can touch someone and then automatically gains the ability to perform that person's strongest ability. If she touches Michael Phelps, for example, she'd be able to catch up or even beat him in a swimming competition. However, this works only once on a person.

When the story opens, she is on the run, having fleeced the casino owner Gerard Serrano of a lot of money. You see, she blames Serrano for the death of his father, and her revenge comes in the form of posing as the woman of his dreams and playing into Serrano's fantasies until the sucker is madly in love with her. Then she takes his money, humiliates him... and spends the next few months running around while leaving the money she has stolen practically untouched. Oh, and did I mention that she's driving around in a very recognizable car? That is how the hero keeps tracking her, before he manages to place a tracker in that car.

Reyes, our hero, is a hitman hired by Serrano to kill her after learning where she has hidden the money. Therefore, he allows himself to get close to her. He'd sleep with her, play her partner-in-crime... and fall in love with her.

As you can tell, I don't think Kyra is the smartest person around. In fact, not once, until Reyes tells her, does she even suspect that Reyes may be sent by Serrano to kill her. She had stolen from and made a big fool out of someone who is pretty much a mob boss, so she really comes off as dim-witted when she doesn't suspect Reyes of anything. Not to mention, she's driving around in a very recognizable car and waiting for a friend who walks right into the enemy's clutches. Kyra and Mia only demonstrate why you shouldn't trust two romance novel female characters to come up with a halfway decent plan between the two of them.

But what really saves this story and makes me overlook Kyra's stupidity is... well, everything else about the story. The storytelling in this story is top notch. The pacing is excellent, the suspenseful scenes get me sitting at the edge of my seat, and the thrilling scenes are very well set up. I am actually fond of Serrano, because he's easily the smartest and most entertaining goon in the house. I can't help thinking that he would make a most interesting romance hero in his own right.

As for the romance, well, it's pretty much like every other story featuring such characters, written by an author who is too concerned about getting me to find her characters acceptable. While the characters aren't self-pitying types and they certainly do their share of things that can be considered immoral, the author tries to reassure me that I can like them by reminding me of their sad childhood and having Reyes's victims to be portrayed as scums of the death.

For me, I have no problems with anti-heroic characters. In fact, I'd love to come across more of such characters. It is when the author rather intrusively injects all these "See? They aren't so bad! Like them! Love them!" elements in her story that I become jarred out of the fantasy. Such elements only serve to annoy. They tell me that while I have no problems with the characters' antics, it seems like either the author is constantly being plagued by her own conscience or the author is convinced that there is something wrong with my enjoying of her characters' antics and she has to remedy that defect by making sure that the characters are sympathetic woobies so that my conscience is clear. Well, I wouldn't be reading this story and enjoying it if I am that kind of person who wants my fictitious characters to be law-abiding citizens all the time, so the author's attempts to make woobies out of characters serve to intrude into the fantasy rather than to enhance it.

Still, all things considered, the flaws of Skin Game don't get in the way of my enjoyment of this compelling and well-constructed story of romantic noir with a touch of paranormal elements. This book is fine storytelling in action, and therefore a great way to while away a few hours. Provided you don't mind these characters being who they are, naturally.

Rating: 85


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