Wait, just "Keep on the Borderlands"? Not "THE Keep on the Borderlands"? Without the "the" there, it sounds more like a command than a location. Like, "Hey you kids! Stay on the Borderlands! No touching the edges! The edges are lava!" ...Anyway...
After reading the high level adventure The Tomb of Horrors, this book felt like starting a new campaign at level 1. The characters in it are by no means inexperienced, but overall the story felt a lot more mundane than I've become used to. At first, it also felt like a low magic world. I was well into the book before I came across anything that couldn't happen in real life. With a few minor adjustments, Keep on the Borderlands could have been released as historical fiction. But that works in the book's favor.
Most of the characters didn't really feel like "classed" in a D&D sense. They would use any weapon available, freely switching from sword to bow, and picking up hammers or clubs if their swords were broken. I'm so used to characters that are optimized for their favorite weapon, that it felt weird to read about generic fighters. I liked that - it made me feel nostalgic for editions of D&D I never really played.
Almost exactly halfway through the book, the heroes return from having defeated a bandit camp. As a "reward", the lord of the Keep offers them a new quest, to explore the Caves of Chaos. Sounds like a true DM. When the heroes are discussing whether to accept the new mission, we get this bit:
"C'mon, Eddis, why not? If we do find caves and monsters and all that - well, we get better at what we do, we probably find a lot of gold and gems they've stolen from travelers, and we come back heroes.""We get better at what we do" as an excuse to accept a mission? That's right, a character in the book tries to justify undertaking a quest in order to get experience points. It's always fun when the novels try to explain game mechanics, but this one's darn near Lampshade Hanging.
This book doesn't really feel like a D&D module, at least not at first. The way the heroes are given multiple missions, it feels like several sidequests rather than a novel. It does eventually introduce an actual villain who might be responsible for the presence of all these monsters... but he doesn't show up until the last 30 pages, and I don't think he's ever even given a name. It's light on plot, even by "disposable paperback based on a D&D module" standards. But then, from what I've seen, the actual module also seems to be one of the lighter ones.
As usual, author Ru Emerson does a great job of describing the mundane aspects of adventuring, like making camp. Some of the combat is less "heroic" than I usually see as well. Fighters don't just shrug off all but the most direct hits. Getting hit on the shield actually causes pain, and recovery isn't limited to bandaging open wounds. Arms go numb, people get winded, and weapons are actually heavy. I don't know how realistic the book actually is, because like most people, my knowledge of science has been ruined by television. But it certainly felt more real to me than most D&D books I've read.
I'd like to point something out to anal, by-the-book DMs: After several combat encounters, there's mention of characters retrieving any unbroken arrows they can find. See? It can be done! And in good fiction, no less! So remember that when you run your campaigns. I don't care what your PHB says, it's not necessarily unrealistic to allow characters to retrieve ammunition. Also, sometimes a character would shout "Arrow!" and his companions would drop so the enemies could be hit. While some rulesets impose a penalty for firing into melee, this novelist understands what teamwork is.
That teamwork was one of my favorite things about the fight scenes. There often wasn't enough room for everyone to fight at once, so the fighters would form lines. When the front line got winded, they would switch places with the fighters behind them, so the freshest fighters were always in front. I wish D&D had a mechanic that let two allies use their movements simultaneously to switch places, to help with fighting in narrow hallways. Some 4e powers let you do this, but I'd love it if was a standard ability for everyone.
I have a thing for female characters (no, really?), so I was pleased that the book's primary character is a swordswoman. Eddis is well-developed (for a short novel, anyway), and very competent. By the end of the book I knew a lot about her: childhood, favorite foods, and so on. That's some good detail for such a thin book. But then, it's not a very deep module so I guess it had to be padded a bit.
One of my favorite things is when these books make me think about the morality of dungeon crawling. At one point the party is forced to execute some bandits they had captured. They don't feel good about it, but all the alternatives would have endangered the mission. Later, when they clear out the first kobold cave, there's a bit of a discussion about whether to kill the females and their young. This scene was especially funny to me because I read that chapter right before I ran a friend through the same cave in the D&DNext Playtest. He chose not to kill the females/young, and if we hadn't had to call the session short, I probably would have made it bite him in the ass.
These are the kind of things some players do to NPCs without even thinking twice about it. But in a novel, it makes me feel uncomfortable. When I read the scenes of kobold slaughter, I kept meantally replaying it from the kobolds' point of view. They're just sitting at home in their caves doing kobold stuff, when this group of humans bursts in and starts killing everyone. Sure, the kobolds had previously ambushed human caravans, but the the two races had a history of killing each other, so who knows which race originally started it.
The only thing that really bothered me about the plot was the little girl. At one point the heroes rescue this child from a bandit camp, and they take her back to the Keep. When they're given the next mission to clear out the caves full of deadly monsters, they take the girl with them. They had their reasons - the girl had imprinted on two of the main characters and might have regressed to a feral state if they'd left her behind - but I still don't see taking her on such a dangerous quest.
Bottom line - I liked this book. It was light on plot and felt more like a couple of short stories than a novel, but that didn't bother me. I wouldn't want to read a lot of books written that way, but the novelty of it was pretty cool.