Skin Deep is a suspenseful, at times harrowing, science fiction romance. It has strong, complicated characters and complex world building. The romance is not as powerful as I’d like it to be, but overall I recommend this book if you want some science fiction angst, danger, and sexy times.
Here’s the plot as helpfully described on the back cover of the book:
Riven is a shapeshifter who can be anybody in the galaxy, but who is he really, when he's alone in the dark? Aleta is an empath who can feel anybody's emotions, but what are her own emotions at the end of the day? And who are they together, when they team up to destroy the galaxy's violent drug trade?
Forced into service to a family of wealthy drug runners, Aleta fears her temptation to wield their power, a power she lacked as an impoverished orphan. Determined to destroy those same drug runners, Riven fears that his undercover mission will destroy Aleta as well.
Ensnared in a web of mistaken identities and deadly political intrigue, Aleta and Riven struggle to survive: a shapeshifter and an empath, in search of themselves.
This is a complex book with a lot of elements – hard science fiction that involves fantastical imagery and shape-shifting, political intrigue, espionage, and loads of angst plus a romantic lead who is, by Aleta’s count, four different people (eventually, five). The plot description is somewhat misleading – the story is told primarily from Aleta’s point of view, and there are long passages where she and Riven have no contact at all. It’s very much Aleta’s story, with a side of romance.
Initially, the romance is set up as a love triangle between Aleta, Merlin (the nice guy) and Darcavon (the alpha brooder). The story becomes much more complicated when it turns out that Merlin and Darcavon are the same person (Riven, the shapeshifter). This looks like more of a spoiler than it is – the back cover copy makes it pretty obvious. Riven can copy anyone, and assume their life, but this means assuming their personality to a large degree. This makes it difficult for him when he has to assume the identities of unsavory people, and he must struggle to hold onto his own identity in someone else’s skin. It also made it difficult for me, as a reader, to identity with Riven since I never felt I understood who he was. To tell you the truth, I imprinted on Merlin early on, like a little orphaned duckling, and I wanted the romance to be with him. This won’t both other readers so much. I just have a nice guy/nerd fetish and I loved Merlin and never got over losing him as a distinct character.
The strength of this book, and what pulls it from a C grade to a B minus, is the world-building. This book has stunning imagery, complex economics and politics, and a deft ability to pull us into situations without too much exposition. The gap between rich and poor is well-drawn. The parallels to our own economic situation, and the exploitation of the Third World, are left for us to figure out – they are obvious without being spelled out in a heavy-handed way. Aleta’s situation is truly horrifying, and her determination to carve out some sort of freedom for herself, and ultimately to be proactive, not reactive, in fighting injustice, is inspiring. She can verge on Mary Sue territory what with everyone being madly in love with her almost at random, but I was on her team from that first opening chapter in which she struggles to detox herself from a powerful drug while escaping from a corrupt and powerful family’s lair.
I also liked the idea that everyone deserves some form of compassion and that no one is all good or all bad. Aleta is “good”, but she realizes that in madly running around, she keeps depending on others, and they get hurt, and she’s part of that. Another character, Voygaros, is “bad”, but he’s a great gardener, he loves his plants, he wants good things for his family, and he is smart. Riven runs into all kinds of trouble when he realizes that he can’t just hate Voygaros – Voyagros is as complex as Aleta and Riven.
What I didn’t like about the book was the race to the happy ending. There’s all this angst and then – voila! There are babies ever after! And big misunderstandings are resolved! A family that experienced unbearable loss is “moving on with their lives”! Horrible cases of mental illness and childhood trauma are resolved because of the power of luuurve! The wicked family is good now, and its emotional wounds are healed. All the economic damage it’s wreaked is now repaired- but without any consequences to our heroes because the evil family is so rich that even turning it’s powers to good doesn’t mean they have to cut back on the glamour. The dystopian setting was so well-constructed that I just didn’t believe that it crumbled so quickly, with no damage to anyone.
Overall this was an amazing and ambitious book – I had so much admiration for the solid science fiction that I’m grading it maybe a bit more generously than it deserves overall. The romance might be more compelling for other readers, but for me it was disappointing because I latched onto a false lead and never moved on in my head. The ending was unrealistically chipper. But the world building was superlative!