This is book four in Alan Black's 'Metal Boxes' series and it's the last to be published before he passed. It's not likely to be the last, period, because there's a good deal of material that was ready or almost ready for publication at that point and his wife, DuAnn, will be bringing that into print. I'm intrigued as to where it will take Blackmon Perry Stone, especially as this volume ended without a particular plot strand resolved and it's easy to see how that might progress into book five.
Stone is a wonderful lead character, a mild-mannered young gentleman who happens to always be in the right place at the right time to make things happen. Well, sometimes he's in the wrong place at the right time too, which is why this book takes the direction it does. Already a hero for the parts he played in each of the earlier volumes, he nonetheless managed to make some enemies along the way and one of those is about to get a modicum of revenge; reporting Stone for various violations of naval rules during the secret mission recounted within 'Rusty Hinges', some of them very serious indeed.
Partly because this enemy has connections enough to get these charges brought and partly because they, for the most part, are true, we find that Stone is quickly court-martialled, found guilty and drummed out of the United Empire Navy with a dishonorable discharge. The fact that Stone honestly admits to half a dozen of the charges doesn't help, but then it has to be said that his honesty is one of the prime reasons that he's so endearing a character to us and to an increasing number of key players in this ongoing story.
Of course, a new 'Metal Boxes' book is hardly going to focus on Stone sitting back and ruminating on why he's no longer in the Navy; we know there has to be action and intrigue and discovery, so the twist that is soon sprung upon us isn't as surprising as it should be. I'm not going to explore that any further, because you deserve to experience it for yourself, except to highlight that the very careful back cover blurb is the combination of technically, if only just, accurate and highly misleading.
What I will say is that Stone soon finds himself on a Stone Freight Company ship, the Platinum Pebble, on his way to planets 'at the edge of human space', tasked with opening up new shipping lanes. In particular, that means the planet of the Prophet, by which the Navy sailed in the prior book on its way to have a go at the Hyrocanian enemy. In fact, they even rescued a few escapees from that planet as they did so. I have to point out that this is a standard Alan Black progression for this series; each new book seems to be built out of a single detail in the last: a newly discovered planet, a newly discovered species and, here, a sort of combination of the two.
As always, this is a fast-paced and action-packed journey into new territory and, as always, I finished it in a couple of early morning sessions, when I should have been sleeping. I'm not blind to the flaws that the 'Metal Boxes' books betray and this one could well be the weakest of the four so far, given how quickly it resolves itself after being thrown into motion and how easily the enemy seems to be overcome. There's also so much left out of this one, not least any attempt to acknowledge the ramifications of what's done on a particular planet, that I wonder if it shouldn't have been two books rather than one. Of course, that may have been Black's intention all along, even if I'm seeing a different direction for book five. However, he's a born storyteller and Stone is such a fantastic lead character that it's hard not to be caught up in his wake and carried along for the ride; it's easy to understand why so many characters in the story do that when we do the same.
What's hard is to talk too much about what happens here without venturing into spoiler territory, the twist I'm trying to avoid happening so early on in the book. I can say that I'm highly impressed with the way that Black has proved able to keep this series running on a highly consistent track while keeping it notably fresh each time out. These four books tell consistent stories, each from the personal perspective of Stone and his growing cast of colleagues. They build these characters, while also building the bigger story of interstellar war in a known universe that keeps on expanding. However, each book has taken a different approach to those goals and they don't blur together the way that many series books do. They each stand alone just as capably as they build a series.
I can also add that there's more focus here on the Stone family business, which has played second fiddle for a while to our Stone's adventures in the UEN. Sure, it manifests itself mostly in a new character, that of an adopted third cousin, Marybeth Butler Stone, number 619 in the family's pecking order, far behind the 3 that Blackmon Stone fills. On the surface, she's 'an airhead, vacuum-spaced streeter', who fills her dialogue with 'joy' and 'bliss' and 'thrills'. Below it, she's a sharp and savvy businesswoman, putting on an act for the cameras which has trawled up a hundred and fifty million viewers a week for her vidcast. Were Stone not living in a private Navy bubble, he couldn't have avoided noticing what little Beffie-pie has become. She starts this book gloriously and helps build it in a number of ways but, sadly, her story arc isn't what it deserved to be.
And that's echoed in the bigger picture. I enjoyed this pulp adventure very much and it contains a great deal of what makes the series great. Conversation is Black's strongest suit and there are some great ones here. He's also really good at some of the hardest angles of military science fiction: one is the ability to keep his lead humble and grounded but believably important enough to warrant his being followed by so many other characters; and part of that is the way that he handles conflict with others, seeing something in people who might otherwise be discarded for stupid mistakes and building their potential. Stone has done this throughout the series, but there are a couple of great new examples here. Emotionally, it goes to places that the prior books hadn't and that elevates it too.
However, it's still probably the weakest of the four Blackmon Stone books so far. The twist is great but it takes up a good chunk of the book, leaving too few pages left for the main thrust which feels like it didn't have the time to develop properly. Until this point, everything in this series built on what came before in an impressive way, but what goes down on the Prophet's world feels like an old 'Star Trek' episode in that they arrive, they change everything and they promptly leave, with little regard for what will come next. I liked what happened; I just wanted it to take a lot longer, be explored more deeply and be harder to move on from. The same goes for the ending, which also felt rushed, even if it's setting up the direction we'll be taking in book five.
Perhaps I should sum that up by suggesting that this is the first book by Alan Black that I've read thus far that feels like it would have been substantially changed by a major publisher. I've been part of a number of convention panels that aimed to explore the differences between traditional publishing houses, small presses and self-publishing and what each of those options mean to writers. Of all the local authors who self-publish, I've long felt that Alan Black was the one who could easily have landed a major contract and the abiding wonder as to why he didn't has rumbled on with each of his books that I've read. As enjoyable as it is, this is the first one that feels like it would have benefitted from a professional editor.
And none of that decreases my urge to read the next book in the series. There isn't one yet, so I'll move on to Black's standalone science fiction novels as of next month, but I do hope that book five is ready to go and we'll see it in print posthumously. I also expect to revisit these 'Metal Boxes' books in the future, because they feel as though they'll be as much fun to return to, even with foreknowledge of where the stories go, and I won't be missing this one out just because it has flaws. ~~ Hal C F Astell
Click here for a review of Metal Boxes
Click here for a review of Metal Boxes:Trapped Outside
Click here for a review of Metal Boxes: Rusty Hinges