...Reading material like The Lost Level only makes me wish I was rich, if only so I could give Keene a few million dollars (he deserves it) and tell him to slow down, breathe, and let his stories expand better as he writes. It’s obvious that Keene writes under deadline (or past it) so often that the story suffers as he knocks out page after page, never really stopping to figure out what’s best for the story itself. Keene has one of the best (and coolest) imaginations out there, but lately his stories feel rushed and underwhelming, the plots zipping along with minimal effort. His plots always sound awesome, but the stories themselves somehow never quite reach their full potential. Take for example, Scratch, his novella about a giant freakin’ man-eating water snake—the same novella in which the titular creature is barely seen, and the protagonist barely even encounters. Or his other cryptid novella, The Last of the Albatwitches—another plot that should feature some incredible monster action, but instead just has a bunch of people running around the same forest. At some point you almost want to walk into Keene’s head and go “Hey man! You’ve got an unlimited story budget here! FREAKIN’ USE IT!”
At first glance The Lost Level is filled with imagination—until you realize just how much more Keene could’ve done with the concept. The novel deals with Aaron Pace, a man who’s learned how to travel through dimensions via the Labyrinth, a mystical pathway that connects all of Keene’s fictional worlds. This is set up very quickly, (requiring a fair bit of good ol’ “suspension of disbelief”) and Aaron visits other dimensions on a daily basis, ultimately ending up stuck in the “Lost Level” early on—a “lost” dimension where bits and pieces of all the other dimensions end up…well, lost. This lost level has many threats, and seemingly everything wants to kill you; there’s even killer grass. Right away though, readers will be left wanting more: I certainly wanted to both see and learn a ton more about all the alternate dimensions. We see brief glimpses of alternate Earths, alternate timelines, realities, and such—but Keene rushes through them, throwing us into the lost level as soon as possible.
When we do get there, there’s plenty to see, but not much substance. Too often the book feels like a travel guide of sorts, with Aaron standing around and watching something happen throughout various areas of the lost level. When the book does throw Aaron into the action it’s always written splendidly, but the book devolves into a) some new threat finds our characters, b) characters watch/fight threat, c) characters narrowly escape. (The book's best moments are it's quiet ones in which the characters stop to talk about the crazed land they're trapped in.) Which brings us to the book’s one major flaw: structure-wise, it seems to be missing its entire third act. Our characters spend nearly the entire book trying to get to a certain place, but instead of the third act finale one wishes for, Keene skips it all. He literally summarizes the finale the reader has been waiting for, all in a couple of pages. It’s jarring, and completely took me out of the experience—I actually flipped back a few pages and re-read the ending, trying to figure out the huge tonal shift the book takes. For most of the novel Keene is content describing most every threat our characters happen upon…but then the biggest threat of all (a raid on a village, to avoid spoilers) is reduced to a couple paragraphs of “this also happened”. Keene even goes so far as to tease another magical character with abilities like Aaron, bringing him up again and again throughout the novel only to once again reduce him to a few lines of summary at the end of the book. It feels like a writing cop-out; the novel ends up being all journey and no destination.
Still, Keene is to be commended: there is no one out there writing stuff like this today, and in an age of glittery vampires and the ten-thousandth police procedural, Keene still has the guts to write about giant nuclear robots battling Tyrannosaurs. Despite all my aforementioned issues with the novel, there’s simply no way I can’t recommend it—it’s probably the most well-written “pulp” novel you’ll ever read, and its characters will stick with you the same way your favorite comic characters did as a kid. Keene has always specialized in relatable characters, and the same is true here. Protagonist Aaron Pace is somehow still an “everyman” type despite his inter-dimensional abilities, while the warrior-princess Kasheena is more than capable of handling herself as a standout. The real star of the book is Bloop though, a cat/man/beast character who doesn’t even talk—Keene characterizes him perfectly; you can picture his every movement in your head.
The ten-year-old in me would’ve loved the hell out of this book, and would’ve definitely called it perfect. The nineteen year-old me, however? I know Keene was under deadline for this, and I can’t help but wonder if the book was rushed as a result. It certainly feels that way, and although creativity abounds on every page, I can’t help but feel that Keene could’ve done so much more with the material he had. The book races to a conclusion that simply isn’t there, and ends up feeling like two-thirds of novel. It is the first of a series, but that’s no excuse for the book not really having much in the way of a third act. It’s not even that the book ends on a cliffhanger—it doesn’t really, instead opting to wrap up everything in a couple of pages. There’s more adventure teased, but as a reader, I’d much rather have a satisfying conclusion than what basically amounts to a trailer for the next book.
The final verdict: should you read The Lost Level? YES. It’s a brisk, entertaining, well-written read…but lower your expectations some before you open it. If it sounds like a hated it, it’s only because I wanted it to be perfect. I love Keene's works and will follow his writings anywhere; he remains part of my KKK: King, Klein, and Keene, my top 3 favorite authors. (Don’t you love that acronym?!) Here’s hoping that Return to the Lost Level will actually let the story breathe a bit.
THE LOST LEVEL is available for pre-order NOW from Apex Publications, and will be released on 1/19/2015. However, when you pre-order the trade paperback, you'll be emailed a DRM-free ebook to start reading immiedietly!