Within the Skin by Zara West

She’s hidden her true identity from everyone for years. Dressing like a man on the outside, on the inside she’s a princess longing for her prince.

What’s it About?

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Known as El Toro, street artist Alba Vargas is on the cusp of fame and fortune. Winner of a prestigious award, she is the toast of the New York City art scene. Or at least she will be, once she figures out how to act like a woman after living disguised as a boy for six years. If she is lucky, she might even attract the attention of the tattoo artist she has long loved from afar.

Tattoo artist Fernando Pharaoh has betrayed everyone who ever cared about him, including El Toro, the street-wise graffiti artist who saved his life when all looked bleak. Depressed, he turns from his friends and becomes ensnared in a criminal enterprise run by a former enemy.

Then the crime boss kidnaps Toro’s younger brother, Hanger. Blaming himself, Pharaoh sets out to rescue him, resolving to do one good thing in his life. But Toro has her own desperate plan to save her brother—one that will not only break Pharaoh’s heart—but will also destroy every hope and dream she has ever had.

First Impression

First things first, I must say I really appreciated the synopsis that we’re presented with at the start of the novel. One of my main complaints from book two was that we were thrust right back into the story from book one without much of  recap. We’re dealing with a story which spans over the entire series, even though we focus on a different lead couple every time. Everything weaves together, and it’s crucial to know the dynamics of the characters and the intricacies of what has come before. We get a nice little summary at the start of this book which goes over most of the main themes and events from the last novel, which made it much easier to hit the ground running and jump right in with El Toro, aka Alba, and Pharaoh, aka Fur Tree. Man, I really need to up my nickname game. Totally slacking.

Believing in Fairy Tales

You know, this might very well be my favorite book in the series so far. The main reason being I was entranced by the complexity of Alba’s identity as El Toro. She’s worn the facade of being a boy for years to survive on the streets. To help her brother survive. And yet underneath the baggy clothes is a talented artist and young girl who once loved fairy tales and princesses. Her El Toro persona might be as the King of the group, but on the inside hides Alba, a little girl who once dreamed of being a princess. To have two identities within the same person, and witnessing her attempt to try and break free from her El Toro persona for the first time in years was a deeply emotional journey that I loved to travel along with her.

The Juxtaposition of Desire

Another fascinating aspect of this tale was the juxtaposition of El Toro and Pharaoh’s desire and need for each other. She’s secretly craved him for years, but has had to hide her identity behind the notion of brotherly camaraderie. When she finally gets her hands on him, it’s fulfilling a dream she’s wanted to come true for years. For Pharaoh, it’s seemingly love at first sight when he spots this beautiful “stranger”. An inexplicable draw when he first catches a glimpse of her as a woman. His desire is immediate, but if anything he tries to stay away because of his assumption that she must belong to his best friend, El Toro, not knowing that they are one and the same. When he finally gets his hands on her, it’s a sense of the forbidden, yet there’s also a link which was undoubtedly born of their friendship which he isn’t even aware of at this point. You can’t help but wonder what will happen when he undoubtedly discovers that the woman he’s lusting after is actually his best friend.

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Jumping from Building to Building

Overall this novel feels very fast-paced. Everyone is always on their feet, chasing around the city, leaping from rooftop to rooftop. In addition, we’re constantly wondering how, or even if, they’ll ever escape from our villain Kiro’s clutches. You also lose count of the number of times El Toro’s brother, Hanger, escapes from Kiro only to be snatched up again pages later. But throughout all the running, chasing and threats of evil there are just a handful of moments where time stands still, and that is when Toro and Pharaoh come together in each other’s arms. They explore each other as thoroughly as possible, and make the other see the stars.

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What’s Missing?

Throughout the whole novel I couldn’t help but feel that something was missing, but I could never quite place my finger on it. Only when we get to the final climactic scene where Pharaoh is chasing after El Toro and Kiro did it come to me. I thought, “Oh maybe now he’ll finally find her and they can just have a hug already!” That’s when I realized, these two spend a vast majority of the novel separated from each other. They’re both sort of off doing their own things in the beginning. She’s trying to make it in the art world, and he’s becoming ensnared in a criminal enterprise against his will. Eventually both are dedicated to finding out what happened to Hanger and rescuing him from Kiro’s clutches, but it’s pretty rare to actually find them in a scene together. It does make those few scenes where they come together all the more precious, but I think one or two additional scenes towards the beginning with the two of them interacting, whether for her as El Toro or Alba, would have helped with the balance of the novel.

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*A copy of this book was provided for an honest review*

Series: The Skin Quartet, book 3. As I mentioned, this might be my favorite book of the series so far. El Toro and Pharaoh were such complicated, yet captivating characters. Be sure to read these books in order though so that you know who all the key players are.

Final Impressions: You really do wonder how they’ll ever manage to get out of this mess with Kiro. I felt like for a good portion of the book I was holding my breath, waiting for a calm in the midst of all the suspense. Those few peaceful moments are also the handful of scenes where we see El Toro and Pharaoh come together in the physical sense, but it doesn’t take long before the pressures of their world start to impede on their small bubble of serenity.

Smut Level: El Toro has been too busy disguising herself as a man, and protecting her brother on the streets to ever get physically intimate with a man herself. She’s desired Pharaoh for years, and when they finally come together she refuses to lay back and let him do all the work. She takes an active role in getting her hands allllll over him. You get some girlfriend!

Get it on Amazon: Click Here. $5.99 Kindle Price. The Wild Rose Press, Inc. 245 Pages.

Tomorrow’s Extravaganza Post: Between the Shadows by Casi McLean. Time Travel, Fantasy.

 

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