Review of IRREGULARS
(based on a review copy, a shared world anthology with four contributing authors: NICOLE KIMBERLING, JOSH LANYON, ASTRID AMARA, and GINN HALE)
I don't read much urban fantasy, so I can't claim any expertise on what's unique in that arena. My disclaimer aside, within paragraphs of starting the first story I found the setup behind these four tales unique and compelling. This anthology includes cop stories with a supernatural twist - following a special department that handles all crimes in which magic/paranormal creatures/alternate realm involvement/etc. might play a role. These stories are also as much romance as fantasy, sometimes walking that debatable line between romance and erotica with how explicitly the sex is described.
In the first story, Nicole Kimberling’s “Cherries Worth Getting,” Agent Keith finds himself working with an ex-lover as they investigate an underground human meat market. I found myself immersed in this story within a few pages, hooked by natural writing, a likable lead character, an intriguing universe, and a twisty crime investigation. At only around 15 pages, it struck me that I would imagine I had read over 100 pages for how much I understood and cared about the characters, world, and conflict. Also, after having read all four stories, I found the gadgets in this first one the coolest and Keith the easiest character to invest in near immediately.
I didn’t find the romance in the second story, Josh Lanyon’s “Green Glass Beads” quite as convincing as the first, but it’s nevertheless a thoroughly enjoyable story. No weak links here, even if it’s a temptation with anthologies and collections to compare all the stories against each other. In this one, Archer becomes a person of interest in one of NATO’s investigations, though he wonders if Agent Rake’s interest in him is purely professional.
I mentally cheered during the third story, Astrid Amara’s “No Life But This,” because Amara directly addressed an issue that both the first two stories annoyed me a little by sidestepping. Both the earlier stories acknowledge any difficulties in a multi-racial relationship (and note here that I mean race in terms of humans versus non-humans like goblins, fairies, etc.) and subtly address any prejudice or hardship the lead characters have faced as gay men. However, neither of the first two stories discuss the unprofessionalism and possible consequences of casual sex between co-workers or, even worse, between a cop and a suspect. In “No Life But This” Agent Silas is essentially assigned to babysit Deven, a known other-realm assassin now wanted dead. The story upfront acknowledges how the professional relationship here makes any potential romantic relationship a bit of a minefield, which additionally gives the romance a slower, more satisfying build. The magic in this story impressed me the most out of all four. It’s morbid and gory, but unique and fascinating.
The fourth story, Ginn Hale’s “Things Unseen and Deadly,” builds to the most intense climax with high stakes and a well-plotted, novel-like story arc skillfully compressed into shorter form. I find this one a little trickier to describe without spoiling. It’s a typical “main-character-doesn’t-know-his-own-past” type of fantasy story and Jason’s lack of knowledge about his own background both shelters him and puts him in danger from threats he doesn’t know exist. This one, too, has some absorbing, if unnerving, magic and really resonates emotionally.
Sadly, stories (and, hence, anthologies and collections) don’t receive nearly as much attention as novels. I admit to being a skeptical short story reader myself. A good portion of stories read to me as underdeveloped book ideas. That being said, when someone can pack the perfect punch into a shorter format, I admire them all the more for it. Granted, these stories fall more into novella length, making that “punch” a little easier to achieve than in, say, a 10-20 page story. Regardless, I loved them all.