The Lost Level by Brian Keene
Genre: Adult Pulp Fantasy
Publisher: Apex Book Company
Release date: January 2015
Source: eBook from publisher
The nitty-gritty: An outrageous, pulpy, bloody, dimension-hopping story that by turns made me laugh and cringe, and had me running to Google more than once.
I turned my attention back to the cliff. The slope had been hidden by thick vegetation, but now that I stood on its edge, I could see a deep, narrow valley below us. But the gorge wasn’t what caught my attention. What did were the two opponents who were fighting on the valley floor. I had seen many bizarre things since coming to the Lost Level, but it was at that moment that the full otherworldly strangeness of my situation hit me full fold. Below us, engaged in a fierce battle, were a Tyrannosaurus Rex and a giant robot.
So. Much. Fun! I had a blast reading The Lost Level, which as the author states in his Acknowledgements is an homage to the stories of Edgar Rice Burroughs and Robert E. Howard (among others). Keene takes every crazy idea and pulp fiction trope he can think of and crams it into less than 200 pages, and the result is a very crowded but completely entertaining story. Keene’s idea of a dimension in space called the Lost Level, where all the “lost” things of the universe wind up, gives him free rein to do just about anything, and he takes full advantage of that idea.
Aaron Pace is the narrator of the story, a man who fancies himself a practitioner of the occult and has figured out a ritual that opens doorways into other dimensions. One day, peeking through one such doorway, he spies a lush and tropical vista that beckons him to cross over. But once there, he looks back, only to find that the doorway has vanished. Aaron is now trapped in the Lost Level, the one world where no traveler can ever leave.
As he wanders through the fascinating but increasingly dangerous land, he manages to rescue a beautiful woman named Kasheena and her Wookie-like companion Bloop from a deadly race of snake people. Together they set out towards Kasheena’s home, where the wiseman of her village might be able to help Aaron get home again. But they will have to face many obstacles before they reach their destination. . .
The Lost Level, for all its non-stop action and fight scenes, gets off to a slow start, mostly because our narrator Aaron is alone almost up to the 25% mark. He’s writing down his story in a journal he finds on an abandoned school bus, as he introduces us to how he came to be here and what wonders he’s seen so far. The fact that there isn’t any dialog to move the story forward worried me a bit, but once he runs into Kasheena and Bloop things really get going, and the story moves at high velocity all the way to the end.
Like I said before, Keene adds everything but the kitchen sink to his story, including dinosaurs, killer grass, aliens, robots, giant killer slugs, and tiny birds that can clean the flesh off a body in seconds flat. He uses the mystique of the Bermuda Triangle to explain some of the odd things that pop up in the Lost Level, and I was curious enough a couple of times to actually hit up Google to see if octophants and Xerum 525 (red mercury) were actual things. (They are!)
If you’re going to read this book—and you really should!—you will need to put your feminist side in a box and lock it up tight, because in order to enjoy this story you have to remember that Keene is playing with tropes, especially when it comes to the female role in the pulp stories of the ‘20s and ‘30s. Take the lovely Kasheena, for example. Seeing her for the first time causes Aaron to become “awestruck” by her beauty. And it’s not only her “luxuriant chestnut and auburn colored hair” and “bronzed skin” that cause this reaction. Kasheena, you see, is completely naked when Aaron meets her, and remains so for the rest of the book, except for a tiny loincloth! If I hadn’t been laughing so hard at the notion of a gorgeous naked female running around fighting robots and dinosaurs, I would have been horrified. Luckily, I recognized what Keene was trying to accomplish, and I enjoyed Kasheena despite her unfortunate nudity.
The author has great fun with over-the-top violence, and he managed to gross me out more than once. Unfortunately, Aaron’s voice is rather dry and matter-of-fact, and so all the hacking off of heads and stabbing through eyeballs with swords felt a bit dry and unemotional. But Keene certainly knows how to keep a story moving, and our intrepid explorers are faced with one impossible situation after another, with barely time off for Aaron and Kasheena to stop and have sex (which they do a lot).
I can’t leave out one of my favorite characters, Bloop, who is a hairy, dog-like creature that walks upright and can only mutter the word “Bloop!” He reminded me of Chewbacca, since he turned out to be a loyal friend to Aaron and Kasheena, as well as a vicious killer when he needed to be.
A mysterious underground world is alluded to, but never explained, and I hope the author decides to write about it in a sequel. I also thought the story ended very abruptly, but luckily, Brian Keene explains in his Afterword that he is planning a multi-volume series, which makes me very happy. The Lost Level may not be great literature, but it was everything I expected and more, and I can’t wait to go back.
Big thanks to the publisher for supplying a review copy!
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