Long time readers of this blog know that I am a life-long fan of the writings of Edgar Rice Burroughs. My mother collected the Tarzan novels and comic books before I was born and so I pretty much grew up with Burroughs. Once I learned to read, I quickly moved from Tarzan to Barsoom, (Mars) Amtor, (Venus) and to Pellucidar, that amazing world at the center of our hollow Earth where dinosaurs still roam and the sun hangs eternally at noon.
The thing that I perhaps loved most about ERB’s books was the sense of wonder they gave me. The lure of adventure in exotic worlds full of strange creatures and dangerous foes. I can tell you that sense of wonder is hard to come by these days, but not impossible. Brian Keene’s new novel, THE LOST LEVEL goes a long way towards capturing that feeling of headlong adventure on another world.
It begins in true Burroughs fashion, with the protagonist, Aaron Pace, introducing himself and giving you a bit about his background. Pace is a student of the occult, which makes sense, because Brian Keene is an award winning author of horror novels and knows his way around a grimoire. Unlike most of ERB’s heroes, who stumble into their adventures, Pace is seeking a way to explore alternate dimensions, looking for a place termed The Labyrinth, which serves as a pathway between other dimensions. (And is part of much of Keene’s other fiction.)
Pace finds what he was looking for and is able to enter other dimensions, but a moment of carelessness sends him to the fabled ‘Lost Level’, a dimension where the flotsam and jetsam of other realities wash up. Unfortunately, much like the Hotel California, you can check out any time you like from the Lost Level, but you can never leave.
The Lost Level is a homage to more than Burroughs though. While it possesses the eternal noon of Pellucidar (for different reasons) it also owes something to Sid & Marty Croft’s 1970s television series, LAND OF THE LOST and the DC Comic WARLORD, originally written and illustrated by Mike Grell. (Both, favorites of mine.) There’s some Robert E. Howard in there as well. Thus, you have not only dinosaurs, but robots, snake men, and all sorts of strange creatures of Keene’s own creation.
A big part of the appeal of this sort of tale is the ‘fish out of water’ nature of the hero, and Keene does a fine job of showing how someone thrust into this sort of adventure might flip out a bit before settling down to deeds of derring-do. In this, Aaron Pace is perhaps closer in spirit to Carson Napier than John Carter, but he’s certainly a capable hero.
As he explores the Lost Level, Pace finds a staunch ally in the cat-man Bloop, and even finds his own Dejah Thoris or Dian the Beautiful in the lovely and capable Kasheena, a heroine who would have made Burroughs proud. Together they face the many dangers of the Lost Level.
Now here’s the deal. Though I’ve explained all the similarities to various books and comics, this is still a Brian Keene book and fans of his other work will find much to enjoy. The Lost Level is a pastiche, but it’s not old fashioned and there is much humor and the occasional moment of horror or shock, just like in Keene’s other work.
Now obviously I’m the target audience for The Lost Level. I grew up reading those same books and comics and watching the same TV shows as Brian Keene. But you don’t need all that background. If you enjoy a well written tale of high adventure, this book is for you. And the good news is, it’s the first in a trilogy. More adventure and wonder to come in The Lost Level. Highly recommended.
P.S. I enjoyed this book so much that even though I got an advance copy for review I've pre-ordered a copy of the paperback from Apex Publications. You can too.