Just a brief note before you begin reading the individual reviews of the stories from the anthology, Irregulars. This is a stunning collection of stories that carry us into a fantasy world complete with mythical creatures, fascinating humans and sweet romance. Literally, this book has it all. Impeccable writing, devilishly good story telling and some wry humor that would make the most stern amongst us chuckle. The creative talents housed within these pages have prepared for a feast for the imagination! I invite you in to their remarkable world, kick back, pull up a chair and escape for just a short while into the delightful world of the Irregulars! I promise you will never want to leave!
Cherries Worth Getting
By Nicole Kimberling
The first story in the anthology Irregulars is Cherries Worth Getting by Nicole Kimberling. Here we are introduced for the first time to the branch of NATO called NIAD (NATO Irregulars Affairs Division), which polices any "other realm traffic, beings and artifacts". Therefore, it stands to reason that some of the agents working for NIAD would themselves be "irregulars". This is certainly the case with one of the two main characters (mc) in our first story, Gunther Heartman. Gunther is a transmogrified gobbling. In other words while still in-utero his parents were able to make the decision to change his appearance. According to our other mc, Keith Curry, this was indeed a wise decision. It seems that most goblins are made entirely of "bone, talons, and teeth" and are quite terrifying in appearance. They also enjoy eating cigarettes and washing them down with a lighter fluid chaser---just brilliant! But Keith has another reason for avoiding goblins--one that affected his life in a rather gruesome and disturbing way. But let me get to that in a moment.
These two agents are sent to investigate a series of cannibalistic killings--where creatures, not always human, are skinned, butchered and served in a variety of savory dishes--lovely! (Note sarcasm, please!) Their investigation leads them into various dining rooms and food suppliers including a creamery where vampires raise goats for milk production. Are you beginning to get just a glimpse of the subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle tongue-in-cheek humor here? Anyway, one thing leads to another and they find that the investigation eventually leads them to discover that a certain cookie and its production are key clues in unraveling just who is behind the cannibalistic ritual-like killings that are taking place in the Pacific Northwest. Couple this with the discovery that a hereditary market place stall (a valuable commodity) is the real impetus behind the killings and you have all the makings of a darn-good old-fashioned who-dunnit murder mystery wrapped in a fantasy world so remarkably well drawn that you expect to walk into NATO and find an office door bearing the sign, Irregulars Branch!
Before I heap more praise on author Nicole Kimberling for her rendering of such a witty and imaginative world that inhabits characters that immediately feel like friends you have known all your life, let me tell you just a bit about the relationship between Gunther and Keith and the rather unsettling (read horrifying) event that led Keith to work for NIAD.
Gunther and Keith are former fly by lovers. Drawn to one another out of a mutual attraction, they had a series of one-night stands that terminated rather abruptly when Gunther told Keith that he was most certainly not the man for him! Unfortunately this occurred right as Keith wanted to take their relationship or lack thereof to another phase. When we meet them, Keith becomes increasingly aware that his past has left him more than a little bigoted about goblins as a race and has affected any relationship dreams he might have had for he and Gunther. This does not stop the two men from falling for one another all over again, however. What we do discover is that Keith was once a chef--a meat-eating chef, who while preparing a dish from mysterious meat provided by a customer, realizes that in fact he has been handling human flesh. If this is not gruesome enough, he admits to Gunther, as he is retelling his story, that on several occasions he tested the dish by tasting the meat. Upon discovery of it's actual history, the fact that it was human flesh, Keith called NIAD to investigate and swore off meat for good. Can you blame him?
I could go on and on about how humorous and satisfying a read this little story was for me! But, since I have 3 more to talk with you about today, I will leave you with the hearty recommendation that you step into this complex and crazy world Ms Kimberling has created and "feast" upon its goodness! (Pun intended!)
Green Glass Beads
By Josh Lanyon
Green Glass Beads by Josh Lanyon carries us out of the States into the neighboring country of Canada and into the life of Archer Green, half-faerie, and curator of MoSSA (Museum of State Sanctioned Antiquities). However, there is more than meets the eye in this young fey, as we recognize upon the start of our story where we find him hobnobbing with goblins and a shady character referred to as the Moth Mann searching for the elusive green glass beads. To understand their importance one must first know Archer's ancestry.
He is the last of his line, a descendant of the wood nymph Thalia, of the Greenwood Clan. In fact, the beads once belonged to Thalia herself, making them priceless, particularly to Archer. His "obsession" with any artifacts related to the Greenwood clan stems from his Mother's suicide and his subsequent years of shuffling through human foster care. Left without a tether to the faerie realm, never able to return home, he is adrift and clings to any ancestral antiquities he can discover. To further add to his mystique, in his younger years, he was a member of the radical SRRIM (Society for the Rescue and Restoration of Indigenous Magic). While the organization was always radical in nature, in recent years it has turned to methods that are both unsavory and illegal and Archer has removed himself from association of the group. His mother, after giving birth to Archer lost the ancestral beads and it is here where our story begins.
Into Archer's life comes the new boss of the Irregulars, Commander Rake. Archer finds himself immediately drawn to Rake, eventually allowing himself to be seduced and, during their steamy sexual encounter, Rake is revealed to be a demon. (A quick aside here: Apparently Archer is fond of a batch of rather pornographic demon postcards that he keeps by his bedside. This little discovery makes the coming together of Rake and Archer even more delicious!) Through a series of events, the two find themselves on opposite sides of the law. When Archer attempts to steal the beads from an extortionist (Gaki), who is attempting to blackmail Archer into working for SRRIM again, it is Rake who rescues him and then turns him over to the authorities. With the aid of his friend and boss, Barry Littlechurch, Archer is able to relocate to a country where no one knows him and escape prison time.
While I would love to divulge the end of this fast-paced, rather winsome romantic fantasy tale, I will suffice it to say that I ended this novella with a smile on my face and a sigh of contentment. It hardly needs saying but Mr. Lanyon is a consummate storyteller. His ability to weave a tale that captures both your heart and invigorates the mind is almost always a certainty and this gem never fails to deliver! I fell just a bit in love with Archer Green. My heart went out to this young man who had lost so much in his life. This story had such bittersweet moments, and such fine details, down to the novella opening with the Harold Monro poem about the story's namesake. However it was the dance between Rake "a poetry spouting demon" and Archer that warmed the heart and stirred the soul. With a sigh, I moved on to the next story in this amazing anthology.
No Life But This
By Astrid Amara
The Irregulars anthology next leads us to Mexico in Astrid Amara's story No Life But This. While I found many of the other characters in this anthology both fascinating and, at times, downright fun to be around, Deven Shaw is thus far the most compelling character written to date. Taken by his father to the world of Aztaw as a young boy, he is exposed to such atrocities that it is difficult to believe he manages to survive. At the age of 10, his father, the Irregulars ambassador to this alien land, is murdered and Deven is scheduled to be the next human sacrifice for Lord Jaguar.
The use of human blood sacrifices was actually the very reason that Deven's father was sent to Aztaw. Because the almost feudal system (Lords and vassals, or in this case, soldiers) was essentially run on the exchange of blood donation in order to keep the Lords alive, the Irregulars found it necessary to negotiate a treaty of sorts that would halt the outright kidnapping and slaughter of humans. However, Deven's father was betrayed and murdered and his son Deven slated to be sacrificed. Indeed some 13 years later Deven bears the scar from having his throat slit during the ritual. It was his own courage, grasping the ankle of the soldier attempting to kill him that moved Lord Jaguar to halt the ritual. However the next 13 years spent in the total darkness that marked the land of Aztaw and acting as an assassin for Lord Jaguar, left Deven without any idea how to act in the human world. Upon the supposed death of Jaguar, Deven returns to the human world and becomes a consultant for the Irregulars. A ritualistic killing with all the hallmarks of an Aztaw bloodletting ritual finds him in Mexico and partnered with Agent Silas August. The story then follows these two men as they race against time to destroy yet another rogue Lord--Night Axe from taking over and destroying the feudal society to set himself up as the lone ruler. I could go on and on with details from this story. Suffice it to say that watching these two men, Silas and Deven, forge a bond that simultaneously strengthens and heals them both was a beautiful thing to behold!
This was a complex, multilayered story that delved into many areas. Ms. Amara explores, through the character of Deven, the assimilation of what is tantamount to a feral child who is fighting his way back into normal society. We watch with fascination and sadness as Deven goes through levels of despair and frustration while re-learning how to accept being touched, adjusting to the noise, the light, and most shockingly, the idea that his first reaction to kill is not the best solution to a problem. Along the way he learns what is it to be in love with another man, Silas August.
She explores the idea of the mysticism surrounding a society that uses spells and rituals that allow them to bend and freeze time in order to travel from one dimension to another. The incredible array of otherworld creatures that Ms. Amara develops is nothing short of stunning. The author takes the basic thread of the Irregulars and creates an entirely new world to compliment the one she and her fellow authors have already established. This story is, simply put, pure genius when it comes to character and world building within a story!
Things Unseen and Deadly
By Ginn Hale
Meet half dead Henry. His former lover stabbed him in the heart and unwittingly created a man who could virtually live forever. A man whose purpose in life is to help those lost souls who cling to life in the Dark Lands find their rest. He himself is a wounded man, a shell of a former self who walks alone...until he meets Jason. Jason has the ability to transform the simplest of melodies into magical commands. He holds within the secret that can either destroy an entire race (Sidhe) or set them free from their tyrant King (Greine). Of course Jason is totally unaware he holds this power. He has seen his father murdered by strange and horrifying creatures after losing his mother at an early age. Tossed from one psychiatric ward to foster home after another, he is certain the monsters he sees cannot be real. He is simply one small dose of an anti-psychotic medicine from finding they really don't exist at all. Until he meets Henry and the world turns upside down and for the first time he hears the music of love.
The story takes us to the far off realm of Tuatha De Danan where a vile and hateful king is slaughtering rebels indiscriminately while searching frantically for the Stone of Fal. The stone will give him unlimited power. When a young man (Jason) happens into a musical antiquities shop, the owner discovers he is the vessel in which the stone had been placed. The story then chronicles Jason and Henry's attempts to survive and outwit all those set on killing Jason to retrieve the stone of power for themselves.
And so unfolds the adventure that is Things Unseen and Deadly by Ginn Hale. Once again we are treated to the creation of a far off realm and a new yet very familiar cast of Irregulars. In fact one must doff their hat to Ms. Hale for including former friends such as Gunther, Silas August, and even Kale makes a brief appearance! But this story is not theirs. No this is a tale that belongs strictly to Henry and Jason and their remarkable journey together. Ms. Hale draws such sensitive and sweet characters. They draw you in, capturing your heart for just a brief while. This was indeed a most fitting end to a remarkable anthology!