Irregulars
By Nicole Kimberling, Josh Lanyon, Astrid Amara, and Ginn Hale; fantasy (2012)
Blind Eye Books, $15.95, ISBN 978-1-935560-16-6


Irregulars is an anthology of four not-so-short stories that are linked together by the fact that the main characters are either agents of the NATO Irregular Affairs Division (NIAD) or fellows who end up crossing these agents' paths (and beds). The NIAD, or Irregulars because it's so much cooler to call them that, are a super-secret organization dedicated to maintaining the fragile peace between the unknowing majority of humans out there and the spooks that live among them, often hidden in plain eye. The setting is so Hellboy, come to think of it. We have goblins, faes, and such, and some of them act as Irregulars.

You may assume that the authors are billed in order of who has the biggest clout - Nicole Kimberling is the boss of Blind Eye Books, after all - and I don't know about that. But I can tell you that the sequence makes sense: the stories here are arranged in that order.

Nicole Kimberling's Cherries Worth Getting (no, not a dirty pun) has to pull off three things: to introduce the setting to me, to entertain me, and to get me intrigued enough to keep reading the other three stories. She wisely plots her approach by having the two main characters to be Irregulars, thus allowing me to get a glimpse of the NAID procedural process. As Keith Curry and his ex-boyfriend Gunther Heartman investigate a trail of dead bodies, they also interrogate a variety of suspects. It's a rather sneaky, if effective, way to introducing me to the variety of spooks available without resorting to information dumping.

This story is similar in terms of feel to the author's Bellingham Mysteries series for Loose Id. This means that the story is actually the most down-to-earth despite its setting: far from getting involved in dramatic chases and fiery confrontations, Keith and Gunther interrogate suspects and pursue clues just like every other agent would. It is to Ms Kimberling's credit that what could have been a dry tale of clue-chasing turns out to be an intriguing read.

The main characters don't have much depths, which is understandable considering the length constraints the author has to work with, but they are still interesting characters in their own right. Okay, so Gunther does come off as tad too perfect at times, like one of those poster boys for affirmation action that could only be made up by a public relations lackey. That guy even psychoanalyzes Keith like a shrink on Oprah. But still, this story is from Keith's point of view, so perhaps it's just Keith putting Gunther on a pedestal. Maybe Gunther scratches his crotch and belches after a meal and Keith is too besotted to make notice of all that.

This is actually the most interesting yet weakest story of the bunch. It's interesting because the author tackles a daring and dark theme that most authors would hesitate to touch even with a ten-foot pole: cannibalism. While there is no outright vorarephilia mentioned here, there can only be one reason why all those "blood orgy clubs" are held instead of a simple straightforward dinner, no? Unfortunately, after giving me a rather superficial glimpse into a side of this setting that usually only lurks in the most depraved basements of the Web, the story takes a swerve by introducing a new development late in the story as a "twist" to the plot, one that feels most anticlimatic after all that build-up about cannibals gone wild.

More significantly, there are some bewildering editorial decisions here. For example, the author often dilutes the impact of a scene by underestimating me and offering information that I don't need. A good instance of this is on page 54, where Keith tells a lie for a moving reason. The effect, however, is diluted by Gunther subsequently asking Keith about his action and Keith going on to explain the obvious. Whenever such a moment happens, I can only sigh as, just like that, the magic is gone.

Josh Lanyon is next with Green Glass Beads (also not dirty). Archer Green is the curator of the Museum of State-Sanctioned Antiquities in Vancouver, a place where magical artifacts are displayed, after all potentially harmful magic is neutralized of course. Don't be fooled into thinking that he is a nerd, though. From the first page, it's pretty apparent that our half-fae hero isn't afraid to introduce some collateral damage in his pursuit of a magical set of beads that caused the exile of his family from the fae realm. He also has a past with a radical group of fae rights, one that will haunt him as he crosses path with Commander Rake of the Irregulars. Both of them seem to want the same thing - those beads - but for apparently different reasons. Or is it? As these two pucker up for the kiss, Archer will have to sort out his priorities.

This one keeps the same tone and vibe as the previous story, but it ventures into the more familiar territory of romantic urban fantasy here as magic and monsters make an appearance. This story starts out slow, the middle feels padded with filler moments such as one involving a dragon skin that just won't behave, but the later scenes resonate with some pretty good romantic tension and anguished sentiments. I like Archer, who is a charming example of the scholarly nerd-type fellow that can really create some damage if provoked, but Commander Rake remains an enigma due to Archer hogging all the point of view. And honestly, the whole Commander Rake thing and Archer having some mental woo-woo have me thinking of my Commander Shepard and his gay love for the biotic Kaidan Alenko. I know, I know.

The next two stories are noticeably different in terms of tone and style. When it comes to their narrative and approach to romance, Josh Lanyon and Nicole Kimberling could pretty well be twins. Both authors write in posh style that is just dying to be read in an accent just like Judi Dench's, and while their characters do indulge in occasional displays of melodramatic broody love and anguished pathos, on the most part, the relationship is understated with a strong undercurrent of sexual tension. Ginn Hale and Astrid Amara, however, approach their stories in a manner more familiar to readers of romantic gay stories. With the more overt descriptions of the characters' (amazing) physical appearances and their more indulgent willingness to emote, wring their hands, and what not. Also, there is a noticeable pattern of "strong manly man and his more sensitive and visceral boyfriend" dynamic going on in their stories. In the other two stories, it's just two regular guys, despite their not-so-regular abilities, falling in love while saving the world.

As someone who has read probably too many formulaic gay romances for my own good, I naturally find myself preferring the styles of Ms Kimberling and Mr Lanyon. I'm not saying that the next two stories are unreadable - they are actually solid - it's just that the anthology loses its momentum as far as I'm concerned as I move on from two stories that are just my cup of tea to two stories that, while good, just don't feel as special as the first two.

Astrid Amara presents No Life But This. It's a nice title, but the story itself feels like a standard rehash of gay romance tropes. Deven Shaw is the emphatic one, who can sense Aztaw magic as he is an expert on Aztaw stuff after spending a rather tumultuous time there. Now, someone has used Aztaw magic to murder two people, one of which is Irregular agent Silas August's partner. Silas wants payback, but he must work with Deven if he wants to do just that.

Yes, you're probably asking what that Aztaw thing is. I have no idea why Ms Amara thinks that it is a good idea to introduce another realm to abut Earth's, especially when this is a short story and the Earth setting is just barely explored, but hey, I don't call the shots where creative decisions in this book are concerned. The setting feels underdeveloped, and the characters are stock archetypes. You know, the sensitive protagonist and the grouchy guy who is hiding his vulnerable side underneath a prickly exterior.

This is a pleasant read, but as I've said, it's nothing special.

Ginn Hale is the only author who skips the whole single person point of view narration device in her story Things Unseen and Deadly. She tells an interesting story here, but the tropes are very noticeable. Jason Shamir is the Luke Skywalker type who discovers that he is not what he believes himself to be. Tormented for a long time by what he believes to be hallucinations of monsters murdering his father, he now realizes that those monsters could be, indeed, very real. Half-Dead Henry Falk is one of the oldest and most experienced Irregulars in the business, and he ends up protecting Jason as the boogeymen from Jason's past return to get him.

Like most of this author's previous stories, this one rehashes the innocent and naïve twink coupled to the more jaded and experienced (usually older) man dynamics, and predictably enough, Jason soon discovers his strengths and uses his pure shiny love to heal the wounds in Henry's soul and the monsters get defeated and all is well in the end. This one is a better read than Ms Amara's effort, because the setting and the plot feel more focused and more substantially developed, but again, this one isn't anything that makes me sit up and go wow. In many ways, this story and Ms Amara's are far more polished than Ms Kimberling's, but I find that I remember much more about the latter because it's different. Still, I suspect that readers who prefer the more conventional types of gay romantic romps may prefer these two stories.

At any rate, I find Irregulars a pleasant way to kill some time. Each story has its noticeable strengths and flaws, and none really stand out as something that has to be read. But they are all entertaining in their own ways. I really like the setting here, and I won't mind seeing another anthology or, better still, some full length books that bring me back for a closer visit.

Rating: 83


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