The biggest problem I had with Alan Black's second 'Metal Boxes' book, which I reviewed last month,(click here for review and here for a review of the first book) was how many new questions it raised without even hinting at answers. I should point out that I enjoyed the book anyway, a fresh romp for young Blackmon Perry Stone, but I wondered if those questions would be answered in its follow-up. I can happily now add that, yes, they are, at least to the degree that they need to be. It just means that, while 'Trapped Outside' and 'Rusty Hinges' do tell separate stories, they're best read together.
'Trapped Outside' ended with Stone and his cohorts regaining control of Allie's World, in which he owns a majority stake, from the Hyrocanian enemies of the empire, Vogon-like creatures who eat live food. In doing so, our heroes also acquired a Hyrocanian vessel, which they promptly dub the Rusty Hinges, on account of its notably less than pristine condition. Some of the questions I mention above pertain to the food stocks which Stone helped to free from the Hyrocanians. They look like piglets but seem intelligent even if they can't communicate.
And so, we begin 'Rusty Hinges' in a vaguely similar manner to 'Trapped Outside'. We're on Allie's World, again, out in the boonies of space, with everything peaceful but everything about to change. There's just a different ship in orbit (the Rusty Hinges); a strange new race sharing the planet (those piglets, who've taken to wearing straw hats and sunglasses); and an odd feeling of boredom in Governor Stone, as we're a couple of years later and things seem quiet. That's shaken up when the emperor sends a new governor to replace him and we move forward in a very different way.
Stone began this series as a brand new midshipman, but temporarily became an admiral, was promoted to ensign junior grade and then appointed governor of a planet. Now, at the point where he could easily be elevated to king, as he's colonising more of the system that contains Allie's World, he's bumped right back down to ensign. However, that frees him up to volunteer for a mission that Commander Butcher is about to launch.
It's a secret mission, entirely populated by volunteers who won't be told anything at all about it until it begins. Stone wants the adventure, so signs up, which prompts a whole bunch of others to follow suit: a marine corps, his drascos (who each have three daughters now) and five hundred or so piglets. The best reasoning is by the marines: Maj. Numos is eager for the action but refuses to volunteer until he knows where they'll be going; however, the moment Stone volunteers, he does too because, to use his term, Stone is a 'trouble magnet'.
As it turns out, trouble is pretty much guaranteed. It's not going to be the media tour rumour suggests; they're going to take the Rusty Hinges through the hyperspace jump point the Hyrocanians used to get to them, hunt and destroy the enemy, infiltrate their fleet and locate their home planet. Oh, and get back alive and in one piece if possible. Not too much trouble likely there, right?
Well, of course they find trouble and plenty of it, most of which plays out in the manner we've come to expect from Alan Black. This is the most consistent of his novels that I've read thus far, missing the few awkward pages at the beginning that I've got used to. There's all the action, intrigue, discovery, chance and sacrifice we could hope for and it's all supported by some very clever world building, given that the world we see for most of this book is a large enemy spaceship. Black puts it to very good use indeed and it's no exaggeration to suggest that it felt almost like home by the time he was finished.
There are a number of other upsides specific to this book. One is that the 'enhancements' that Stone has been getting from the mixed human and drasco DNA in his system does not mean that he's going to suddenly be performing superhuman feats; I've seen that sort of cheap growth in many series from many authors but Black does not fall prey to the temptation. It manifests mostly in his ability to communicate with his drascos, which is fine. The other is that another member of the crew turns out to be a fan of his, as learned through a rather salacious novel that Black clearly enjoys calling 'Metal Boxes'.
The only downside for me was the character who clearly only showed up in the book to create conflict; I get what Black was trying to do with him and he does that job well but his stirring the pot just annoyed the crap out of me, even though his successes are useful to the story and his failures generate some of the scenes of dialogue-driven conflict that I am starting to believe are Black's strongest aspect. Fortunately, we keep moving forward anyway and learn plenty as we do so, especially about the piglets.
I loved these little guys and I thoroughly appreciated how Black grew them during this book. Maybe he was right to introduce them in such an enticing way towards the end of 'Trapped Outside' but leave any explanations until 'Rusty Hinges'. The drascos appear to be popular with Black fans but, as much as I'm fond of Jay and Peebee, I'm fonder of Shorty, Sissie and the piglets and that was true even before we're given some long overdue answers to who they are and how they got to be live Hyrocanian snacks.
One of the biggest problems inherent in novels like this, epic pulp adventures, is that we know that the hero is always going to win out in the end. Fortunately, Black is aware of this and he manages to create a lot more tension here than he did in 'Trapped Outside', with its vastly reduced cast of characters. There are plenty of people here to get into trouble, be killed off, become heroes or what have you, so we thrill to the adventure even if we know Stone is always going to be safe. We're also getting to know quite a lot of supporting characters and they're drawn well enough for us to invest us in their futures. Maybe Black is a little too reluctant to kill off his literary creations, but we do know that he's not unwilling.
Normally, at this point in a series, I'd be wondering where the author plans to take us next. There are an abundance of possibilities, not just for Ensign Stone himself but for the universe he inhabits and the war that is still ongoing. I'd especially like to see something from the perspective of the piglets and would be more than happy to suggest a novel from Shorty's angle. Sadly, as I'm writing in memoriam of the author, Alan Black, I can only hope that the books that he completed before he passed, which DuAnn, his wife, is preparing for publication, include wildcards like that.
There is one more 'Metal Boxes' novel already in print. That's 'At the Edge', which doesn't appear to look in any of the ways I was hoping but intrigues me nonetheless. I'll review that one next month, then jump sideways to look at the various standalone science fiction novels he's produced over the last decade or so with his main series behind me. They'll keep me busy through until next year, so expect much more Alan Black here at the Nameless Zine! ~~ Hal C F Astell