Review: “Killbox,” Ann Aguirre

Pros: The world keeps evolving and changing
Cons: A couple of small details
Rating: 5 out of 5

The world is going to hell in a handbasket. Sirantha Jax and her friends destroyed the Farwan Corporation, which was hugely corrupt, but it was also the only thing keeping the spacelanes safe. Now the criminal Syndicate, Farwan loyalists, raiders, and the horrific aliens the Morgut are carving up the universe. In Ann Aguirre’s fourth installment, Killbox (Sirantha Jax), Jax quits her job as ambassador and the crew retires to Emry Station, where they once defeated a nest of Morgut. The politician who appointed Jax as ambassador now has a proposal for March: the Conglomerate needs an Armada to protect its people. March gets appointed as Commander, is given a budget, and plans to hire a bunch of raiders to perform, essentially, state-sponsored raiding. The good guys figure out that the Morgut are doing something truly frightening: they’re performing jumps without needing to start and end at a beacon, allowing them to emerge from and enter into grimspace from wherever they like! Our heroes need to find a way to do the same, which is going to be terribly dangerous for Jax.

Constance has taken over Emry Station’s AI, so we don’t see a lot of her in this, but she’s still present around the edges and still evolving. I like that for her taking over a station is actually an upgrade from having a humanoid body–Aguirre avoids the trope where all an AI wants is to be human. Jax finally starts training Argus as a jump navigator, and also gets another upgrade or two to her own abilities–she’s starting to fill up with experimental tech, and it’s making her feel a little less than human. One particular experiment places her in great danger.

March refuses to have a relationship with Jax while they’re in the same military command structure. Sure, there’s good reason for this, but they’ve been forcing themselves apart for a while now. I felt like they could have achieved the same thing while still allowing themselves to be together in their strictly off-hours while on station and that way they’d go a little less insane. Saying they’ll wait until after the war is impractical, since there’s no telling how long it’ll go on.

There are interim bits where we get to see communications between Tarn and a mysterious man named Edun Leviter who has incredible resources and manages to obtain all sorts of information. Apparently he has a very brutal reputation, but Tarn almost seems to idolize him. I’m not really sure what the deal is with this, except that it does serve to fill in some of the blanks regarding how the war effort is going behind-the-scenes.

Hon returns in this–the raider who almost turned Jax over to the Corp before it went down. One of the things that was a problem at the time is that Hon turned out to have a bunch of comatose pregnant women on his base who were being used for a eugenics program. Here we seem to dismiss that by hand-waving that it was really his pet mad scientist who did all of that. I wasn’t convinced, and I felt like that should have been addressed.

There’s also a plot point where it turns out the Morgut tried to take a human scientist alive for her research. However, so far we’re made to believe that the Morgut don’t even acknowledge humans as anything other than prey. They don’t seem to think of humans as sentient, from what I can tell, and no one at all seems to know how to speak to them. So how on earth would they find out that they needed this human, much less where she is, and how would they plan to interact with her??

A few other plot threads pop up that introduce interesting complications. We finally find out what Fitzwilliam’s fatal faux pas was that started a war so long ago, and it’s hilarious. This episode does end in a cliffhanger, which is not my favorite thing, but it’s still a wonderful book and I can’t wait to read the rest of the series.

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Review: “Doubleblind,” Ann Aguirre

Pros: Each installment in this series goes somewhere totally new
Rating: 5 out of 5

Ann Aguirre’s Sirantha Jax series is certainly holding my interest! In book one we meet Sirantha Jax, disgraced jump navigator who’s been accused of terrorism. While she manages to clear herself of those charges, in the process she destroys the Farwan Corporation, which pretty much runs known space. In book two Jax and her companions find themselves caught up in the middle of a war, and then held hostage by the criminal Syndicate. In the process Jax finds out two important things: she was conceived in grimspace (potentially explaining some oddities), and her mother runs a portion of the Syndicate. Now, in Doubleblind (Sirantha Jax, Book 3), Jax has been appointed ambassador to Ithiss-Tor because she’s in the unique position of being trusted by one of them. Vel is willing to accompany her party to his world and act as translator. His people do not view humans favorably, regarding them as inferior savages, so he spends a lot of time teaching Jax about his people. While there, things don’t entirely go well! March is on the edge and liable to start killing at any moment–and if anything, he’s getting worse, not better. Constance goes missing, and one of the Ithtorians who most supports allying with the Conglomerate is poisoned, and our heroes are framed for it!

The plot with March having gone cold and hard since the war on Lachion is hard to read, because Jax loves him so much that his distance is painful. It’s worth sticking with the plot, however. She figures out a very novel approach to trying to help him, and it’s fascinating. One worry Jax has is that March always loved her inability to lie to him since he’s a psi and used to feeling people’s deception; but in the name of politics she’s learning to dissemble, and she’s afraid she won’t appeal to him as much that way. It should be noted that things are set up such that there’s a lot riding on Jax’s ability to form an alliance: enough to keep her staying there and working hard no matter how bad things get. The Morgut, the Syndicate, Farwan loyalists, and raiders are wreaking havoc, and having such a strong race for allies–particularly since the Ithtorians are pretty much the only race the Morgut respect as hunters rather than prey–would be invaluable.

There are plenty of sub-plots to make everyone else’s lives interesting too. Dina and Hit seem to be getting closer. Jael seems to waver oddly between being super-intense about bodyguarding Jax, yet going off on his own whenever he gets bored or wants to gamble. Doc is trying to find a way to help the poisoned Ithtorian. Constance is being invaluable as an assistant, but when she disappears no one knows if she’s off researching or what. Jax gets to learn a lot more about Vel now that she’s seeing him in his native surrounds. And there’s plenty of action and adventure to keep things exciting.

There was one thread where I just wanted to shake Jax for not noticing a repeated clue, and not finally putting two and two together when given additional clues.

We really go through the emotional wringer in this installment of the series. Content note for a brief and not-too-detailed sex scene. I’m looking forward to reading the rest of the series!

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Recipe: No-Bake Lemon Cheesecake

I love lemon no-bake cheesecake. Here’s the one I put together recently. I’d looked at recipes online and found three main methods: mix sweetened condensed milk with the cream cheese and let that set; fold the cream cheese mixture with whipped topping and let that set; or use gelatin and liquid to set the cream cheese mixture. This recipe uses all three methods. As for why I prefer no-bake? I find baked cheesecakes to be overly dense, sticky, and dry. I like the smooth creaminess of a no-bake cheesecake. This recipe is intensely lemony–you can reduce the amount of oil and/or juice if you like.


  • 14 sheets of graham crackers
  • 3 tablespoons granulated sugar
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 11 tablespoons melted butter
  • 2 (8 oz) packages of cream cheese, room temperature
  • 3/4 cup sweetened condensed milk
  • Zest of 3 lemons
  • 1 teaspoon food-grade lemon oil*
  • Pinch of salt
  • 3/4 cup lemon juice
  • 1 envelope gelatin
  • 1 (8 oz) package whipped topping, thawed in the refrigerator**

Spray your springform pan or deep dish pie plate lightly with cooking spray.

Pulverize the graham crackers into crumbs and combine with sugar, salt, and melted butter. Mix until everything is damp with the butter. Press mixture into the bottom and sides of your pan. Refrigerate while you do the rest.

Put cream cheese in a bowl with sweetened condensed milk, lemon zest, and lemon oil. Beat on low to medium speed with a hand mixer until thoroughly combined.

Put the lemon juice in a small saucepan, add the pinch of salt, and sprinkle the gelatin overtop. Allow to soften for three minutes. Place over heat and bring just to a boil, stirring occasionally. Pour into the cream cheese mixture a bit at a time, mixing well after each addition. Stop when it’s all mixed in and the mixture is smooth.

Fold the whipped topping into the cream cheese mixture. Scoop it into the prepared crust, place a sheet of plastic wrap overtop, and refrigerate for at least four hours or overnight. Slice and serve!


*I’ve found lemon oil available at two sources: King Arthur Flour and Boyajian Mini Citrus 3 Piece Set [Amazon]. (Same brand at both sources.) If you don’t have any and don’t want to get some, leave it out and taste before adding the whipped topping to see whether you need more lemon juice or not. The oil just adds an indefinable something that the juice lacks, I find, but including the zest will give you some of that anyway.

**For the whipped topping, if you can get So Delicious “Coco Whip,” made from coconut milk, it adds an extra touch of coconut flavor that I really like. Your call, however.

Make sure you’re using a type of zester that makes really thin, tiny zest bits, not long strands, or you’ll feel like you’re eating string. I’m partial to the Microplane 40020 Classic Zester/Grater, Black [Amazon].

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Review: “Wanderlust,” Ann Aguirre

Pros: I just love this world-building!
Cons: Gets a bit depressing
Rating: 5 out of 5

In book one of Ann Aguirre’s Sirantha Jax series, Jax was labeled a terrorist, rescued by people who needed her help, and then (semi-accidentally, mostly to save her own life) destroyed the corporation that ran most of the civilized worlds. In Wanderlust (Sirantha Jax, Book 2), the Conglomerate “rewards” Jax by making her an ambassador–largely because she’s the only one the Ithiss-Tor will deign to speak with because of her friendship with the bounty hunter Velith. First, however, she needs to make sure that her friends on Lachion are all right. Unfortunately, she ends up having to detour on the way there and deal with an emergency station infested with monsters. Then she finds out that, in fact, her friends on Lachion are not doing entirely well–and they’re blaming her. Now she has to find her way off-planet during a war, avoid the Syndicate (which is trying to blackmail Jax to flub her ambassador’s duties by threatening her in-debt mother), and deal with a mysterious illness that seems to be making Jax more and more fragile. Jumping may well kill her sooner rather than later if she doesn’t figure out what’s going on–and how to fix it.

I find Ann Aguirre is particularly good at taking plots in directions I don’t expect, even if that sometimes means simply ending them! We do find out that Jax has a more unusual relationship with grimspace than even she realized, and possibly why. It’s fascinating and I can’t wait to learn more about it. Her mysterious wasting disease and easily-broken bones are another interesting thread. We do get to see Doc again, although in trying circumstances, and Velith is back. The Syndicate turns out to have some of its own intriguing facets.

Things do get rather depressing on the Jax-and-March front. He gets caught up in the war on Lachion and starts retreating back into his old self, when he was a killer-for-hire. I found it a bit hard to read about (being recently divorced, I have trouble reading about people having too much difficulty working things out in a relationship). But it didn’t tip over the line into making me not want to read the book.

The crew takes on a couple of new souls with secrets of their own. I really like the new characters and how they interact with the remaining crew from the last book. One of them is someone who was genetically engineered, and another is an infamous killer. I’m looking forward to reading more!

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Review: “Grimspace,” Ann Aguirre

Pros: Such fantastic characters
Rating: 5 out of 5

I’m finally reading Ann Aguirre’s Grimspace (Sirantha Jax, Book 1)! I’ve heard wonderful things about it, but just hadn’t gotten to it before now. Sirantha Jax has the rare J-gene: she’s able to guide ships through jump space, enabling quick space travel. Unlike most others with the gene, she’s gone more than 10 years without any sign of burnout. Recently she was the jump space navigator on a ship full of diplomats, and it crashed and burned, leaving her the only survivor. Bad enough that her pilot, also her lover, was killed, but now it seems like the corporation is going to blame the crash on her. She’s having trouble remembering the vital moments of the crash in order to figure out what happened, and the psych docs seem to think that the best way to provoke her memory is to make her relive the crash–over and over and over. She’s close to breaking when a man named March shows up and gives her the opportunity to escape. She knows she’s going to be used as a scape goat for the whole thing, so she takes him up on the offer. Soon she finds herself traveling with a motley crew who’s determined to find and train a source of jump navigators outside of the all-powerful Corp. Unfortunately, the Corp has labeled Jax a terrorist and sent bounty hunters after her.

I love the characters in here. Dina, the other woman on board the ship, seems at first to fall into the cliché of being hostile to the new girl, but it turns out she has very specific reasons for being hostile, is kind of an irascible curmudgeon in the first place, doesn’t have a rivalry with her over a love interest (Dina is a lesbian, after all), and their relationship evolves over time. March is really interesting–again it would have been easy for him to fall into a stereotype of the taciturn, glowering, sexy guy, but he doesn’t. He has people he cares about, and morals that matter to him, and again, he has legitimate reasons for glowering and being taciturn (and again, his relationship with Jax evolves over time). The other characters are equally entertaining and interesting. I particularly like the fact that Jax is a bit on the ribald and sarcastic side–again, not what I immediately expect from this sort of setup.

Because of Jax’s time in the hands of Psych, she’s more than a little bit paranoid, and seems to have a nice case of PTSD going. It’s handled really well. Because the story is told in a thought-filled first person, it’s easy to get swept up in Jax’s thoughts, especially when she’s getting paranoid. It’s very effective.

Aguirre does one thing that I find unusual–there are some plots in here that your average writer would work for distance, whereas she cuts them short. This is a great way to surprise your readers, I have to admit. There are definitely unexpected losses.

Content note for sex and death (not a lot of it).

Huh, so this is what altruism feels like. It chafes a bit.

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Short Take: “Clockwork Dragon,” Lee French, Jeffrey Cook

Pros: Delightful!!
Rating: 5 out of 5

Lee French and Jeffrey Cook’s novella Clockwork Dragon introduces us to Dwago, a clockwork dragon who was just brought to life. “Papa,” the wizard and engineer who brought him to life, has tasked him with three roles: to be a companion to Papa’s daughter, Rozalia. To protect Rozalia. And to help Papa finish creating a new, clockwork heart with which to replace Rozalia’s ailing heart. The only outsiders who ever come to visit are Gita, who takes care of the housework, and Mr. Drac, who seems to be distant family of some sort. Fixing Rozalia’s heart, however, won’t be the end of this little story.

Dwago is positively adorable, and the tale is told from his point of view as he does his very best to fulfill his obligations. Gita is a strong, brave woman who adds so much to the tale, and Rozalia is a sweetheart. The characters are, in large part, very wholesome. It’s nice sometimes to see some genuinely good characters in fiction.

There’s a surprising amount of tension to this story! Chase scenes, evil spells, walking suits of armor, fierce wolves… Dwago has a lot to worry about when protecting Rozalia. And the castle they’re living in has some real surprises in store for them!

Absolutely pick up this delightful little story. It’s quite fun!

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Review: “Beyond the Gate,” Mary SanGiovanni

Pros: Still interesting
Cons: Not much happening
Rating: 3 out of 5

Mary SanGiovanni’s next novel about occult consultant Kathy Ryan is Beyond the Gate (A Kathy Ryan Novel). A company called Paragon Corp is dabbling in opening doorways between universes. When something inevitably goes wrong, they call in Kathy Ryan to help them. After all, closing doorways and keeping out monsters is in her job description. They end up sending her and several other people through the gateway and into a seemingly uninhabited world. Their mission: to rescue missing scientists, collect information, and find their way home again.

That sounds a little sparse, doesn’t it? I mean sure, it could be fleshed out into something quite meaty, but it isn’t. And that’s disappointingly different from the other Kathy Ryan books. Those had plenty of monsters and chases and fights and all that jazz. This story is mostly telling, going over facts about Kathy and other worlds that we already know from other SanGiovanni books or just ruminating overly long about what’s going on in this book. I honestly didn’t find it all that interesting. The material set in the other universe spends most of its time on getting lost in a giant, mostly-empty city.

I also wasn’t thrilled with the climax. We’re finally introduced to some big, bad entities, but then it felt as though they were so powerful that SanGiovanni didn’t really know what to do with them. There’s a disappointingly short and relatively uninteresting climax to the book and it doesn’t do much to answer any questions. I felt like this could have been condensed and turned into the first third of a longer, more intense work.

It’s certainly possible to do this kind of low-key horror with not too much physical happening, but it’s not what we’ve come to expect from the Kathy Ryan novels. And it doesn’t mesh with what Kathy finds out about the world they’re visiting.

The other books also had a much more traditional horror approach to their bad guys, primarily relying on cultists. This time it’s a large corporation with ties to the US government. It’s a whole different feel, and I don’t think all readers will like the transition. I think it was good enough, although some of it was a bit obvious. The corporation had a weird tendency to just let obviously messed-up things leave their premises, yet at the same time tended to round up the main characters any time they found them, using standard-issue goons with guns. Only a few of the corporation folks broke the mold enough to give it some variety.

I still plan to check out another Kathy Ryan novel assuming there is one, but I hope it goes back to a more familiar style.

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Short Take: “Green Door,” William Meikle

Pros: I just love this strange world Meikle has developed
Cons: A little confusing
Rating: 4 out of 5

I’ve read quite a few novellas by William Meikle at this point, although none from his Sigils & Totems/Midnight Eye books. Green Door: A Sigils & Totems / Midnight Eye Novella (The William Meikle Chapbook Collection 2) fits in well with his other cosmic horror (I couldn’t help but recognize the song lyric, “And the Dreaming God is singing where he lies”). Derek Adams is approached by young David Balfour at the pub. Balfour wants to hire Adams to find a mysterious green door. Balfour seems to understand that Adams is aware of unusual things beyond this world, and is not surprised to find out he bears a sigil on his arm. The door belongs to one of a group of places called “Sigil houses,” that call to people and put them in touch with things beyond the veil. Adams spends a fair amount of time and money tracking down the door, and when he finds it, he discovers it’s being put to use by people who maybe shouldn’t be messing with things they don’t entirely understand.

I wouldn’t recommend this as your first Meikle book; I probably should have read some other Sigils & Totems books first, since I felt a little left behind by the start of things. It didn’t take too long to get my bearings, though. It’s a fairly quick read, and I think my favorite part of it was Balfour and how he turns out. I also enjoyed watching Adams work his neighborhood network of contacts to get the information he needed and track down the door–there are some real characters that come together in a very short space and they’re a lot of fun. I would have liked to see a little more depth to Jennings as well, but that’s a minor thing.

If you’re fond of cosmic horror, I definitely recommend Meikle’s work. I always know I’m going to have a good read when I pick up one of his pieces!

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Short Take: “Then Will the Sun Rise Alabaster,” Benjanun Sriduangkaew

Pros: Fantastic worldbuilding
Rating: 5 out of 5

Benjanun Sriduangkaew’s novella Then Will the Sun Rise Alabaster takes place in the same world as her book And Shall Machines Surrender [review]. In this story, a woman named Panthida (referred to as Sister Josephine) lives in an Abbey. Many orphans are taken in and trained to join the sisterhood here. There is much use of corporal punishment (Panthida has scars all over her back), and old names and identities are driven out of the young women. One day, someone from the armed Order of Eshim arrives, Anoushka, bringing a new sister, Numadesi, to join the Abbey. Panthida is drawn to them both, but it takes little time for her to realize that they’re dangerous to her carefully-ordered world. What could their agenda be?

Content note for explicit lesbian sex (f/f and fff). Anoushka, if you’ve read some of Sriduangkaew’s other tales, is also known as the Alabaster Admiral. I really love this character, so I’m thrilled to see more of her. She’s a powerful, dominating warlord with a thirst for women.

The worldbuilding is probably my favorite part of this. It’s told from Panthida’s point of view, and the dystopian future it paints is quite vivid and detailed. Still, there’s a sense of hope to it all. This is a wonderful short story in an engaging universe. If you want to see a little more first, there’s an online story called Where Machines Run With Gold that first introduces Numadesi to Anoushka. (Content note for very explicit sex!)

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Review: “Retribution,” Joshua James

Pros: Excellent follow-on to the Lucky’s Marines series!
Rating: 5 out of 5

Lucky’s back! The “Lucky’s Marines” series may have ended with book nine [review], but Lucky himself carries on in Joshua James’s Retribution: Lucky’s Mercs | Book 1 Lucky, Jiang, and Malby joined up with a crew of mercenaries–Otto, Knives, Spider, and Merlin–when the Empire and the Emperor went full-on psycho and pretty much wrecked themselves. It’s been three months, and the crew finally has a job offer. There’s clearly something fishy going on–no one should be offering them that much money for a babysitting job–but they’re running out of money. If they want to stay operational, they need the cash. They’re supposed to watch over a shipment on a train on an alien world, protecting it from the aliens who want the cargo. Meanwhile, the Empire is ditching the planet and leaving in a hurry. The aliens turn out to be very afraid of something called Blight, which is a networked mind operating super-soldier bodies, with the ability to siphon information directly from a person’s brain (ouch–it isn’t pleasant). Knives is bound and determined to do the job and get out, but Lucky, as usual, has to save the world. If Blight and his army of one gets off-planet, it could do an awful lot of damage.

It’s interesting watching the new team jostle and jockey for position and understanding. Spider’s willing to follow Jiang’s lead, more or less, because Jiang seems to have her head on straight. Merlin goes where Spider goes, and Knives needs the rest of them in order to get his money. Lucky will always be a reluctant hero, even if he is the hyper-violent kind (violence alert!). The book notes up front that this second series is meant to be able to stand alone, so you don’t need to have read Lucky’s Marines. Since I have read that series I can’t say for sure, but I believe it actually does stand up well on its own. Even the complicated things like the Hate are fairly well summed up just by explaining they were the products of Empire skunkworks (special projects), which works surprisingly well.

The characters are fun. They’re just beginning to be sketched out as we start the new series, but there’s already some character growth and interesting relationships forming. In her own way, Jiang is pretty much the one holding the party together with her quiet strength and sheer competence; without her Lucky would be screwed. Spider is an interesting character who clearly has a fascinating background, and it looks like we’ll be poking into that quite soon. Malby is his old, crazy, foolish self, and Merlin is a depressed cyborg who’s having a sexual relationship with an AI. It’s all just plain fun! And if you have read and enjoyed Lucky’s Marines, you’ll find more of what you’re looking for in here, but minus Emperor April’s occasionally too-twisted crazy plans. I think it’s the perfect setup.

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