An American writer of travel guides in need of a new location chooses to travel to a small and obscure Eastern European country. The moment Grafton crosses the border he is in trouble, much more than he could have imagined. His passport is taken by guards, and then he is detained for not having it. He is released into the custody of a family, but is again detained. It becomes evident that there are supernatural agencies at work, but they are not in some ways as threatening as the brute forces of bureaucracy and corruption in that country. Is our hero in fact a spy for the CIA? Or is he an innocent citizen caught in a Kafkaesque trap?
In The Land Across, Gene Wolfe keeps us guessing until the very end, and after.
©2013 Gene Wolfe (P)2013 Audible, Inc.
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"Give the man a (dead) hand"
In The Land Across, our hero, a travel writer named Grafton, is determined to become the first to publish a travel guide for an unnamed Eastern European country he refers to as "the land across the mountains". He takes a train across the border and is immediately arrested. His passport is confiscated and he is delivered to and becomes the prisoner of a suburban homeowner. We then follow Grafton as he first attempts to regain his passport and secondarily tries to understand the mores and culture of the country for his book, but Grafton quickly becomes embroiled in mysteries and dramas far beyond his expectations. The American travel writer stumbles across a lost treasure mystery, becomes dangerously entangled in a black cult and the JAKA (the country's secret police) efforts to stop them, as well as becoming the recipient of an animated dead hand all the while dealing with the amorous attentions of virtually every woman he meets including a ghost girl!
The book begins in a quasi-travelogue style, but moves into more of a first person mystery tale fairly early in the narrative. There's a little bit of a lot of paranormal thrown in - allusions to Vlad the Impaler, voodoo, ghosts, angels, demons, second sight, etc. - although the paranormal side of the story never quite finds a real focus. There is a fairly good use of foreshadowing, some great settings that enhance the creepy feeling of foreboding, several clever plot twists, and some very fun characters that keep this story fast-moving and very entertaining. This is one of those books where you can see some big plots holes in the rear view mirror, that aren't too troublesome during the story. (I had the same feeling about Lexicon and 14 - too much fun during the story to worry about plot holes until AFTER I finished the book.)
I wouldn't normally really like this protagonist because EVERY woman he encounters is so enamored of him which I usually find tiresome, but Grafton has some good qualities and Gene Wolfe's characterization of this "every-man" controlled by powers he doesn't understand and Jeff Woodman's great narration combine to make Grafton rather likable in spite of himself. Some of Wolfe's female characters are a little thin, but he does have a pretty great female JAKA agent that I really liked and Woodman does a terrific job with voices including the women.
More of a mystery with paranormal facets than a true fantasy, The Land Across is fun and entertaining. Most of the book can be followed easily without using all of your attention, but the last two hours require more focus as all the loose ends are tied together.
"It Wasn't a Lie the Way I Meant it"
Toward the end of Gene Wolfe’s The Land Across, travel-writer Grafton tells his foreign secret police comrade that he doesn’t have anything to tell her, but thinks: “Really, there was a lot [to tell], but I had decided not to tell all that. I figured it out last night, and this morning…I didn’t know how to say it.” Well, I have to admit, I haven’t figured it all out, and I’d be lying if I thought I did, but I sure enjoyed scratching the surface, even if it did make me feel like the secret police agent being kept in the dark by her partner. This is probably pretty standard for Wolfe books – he’s an author who is notorious for his subtle writing.
The Land Across follows Grafton as he travels to a mysterious land where about which no travel books have been written. It is not a travelogue, though – Grafton is quickly abducted by border guards and put under house arrest once he arrives. Soon, he’s hired to investigate a haunted house, press-ganged into a cult, arrested again, and is press-ganged as agent for the country’s secret police. There are suggestions of vampirism, life size voodoo dolls, magic, and the creepiest, funniest, coolest severed hand I’ve had the pleasure of reading about.
If that sounds weird and complicated, well, it is. This is a Gene Wolfe book, after all. If it sounds like a book spinning out of control…I’m guessing you haven’t read much of Gene Wolfe’s stuff before. He’s a master writer, and no matter how bizarre things get, he uses strong, crisp prose that is easy to listen to, subtly layered, and you just go with it.
I don’t usually consider Wolfe’s writing to be full of humor – maybe that’s because up until now, I’d always read his books first. But the casual way Jeff Woodman narrated this book made the all the ridiculous situations brim over with humor. When he reads a line like “It doesn’t seem like corpse fat would make very good candles,” I couldn’t help but blink, and then cackle. Also, pretty much all of Grafton’s relationships with nearly every female character. And much of that is down to Woodman, who you can’t help but want to love.
There is a decided lack of Gene Wolfe audiobooks, and that’s a real shame. Wolfe is a master of speculative fiction – he’s regarded by Neil Gaiman as “the smartest, subtlest, most dangerous writer alive today.” We only have five of his novels in audio, and hopefully, we’ll see many, many more from Audible/Audible Frontiers soon.
(Originally published at the AudioBookaneers)
"A Sound Decision. Wolfe’s 30th Novel."
For those whose sole exposure to the literary world is through Audible, it may seem incredulous that Gene Wolfe is a highly regarded writer. After all, at the time of this writing (January, 2014) he only has five titles on Audible.com. Before 2010 none of his books were available as audiobooks. I am grateful to Audible for bringing his four-volume THE BOOK OF THE NEW SUN into the realm of the spoken word. Now it seems that audiobooks are gaining in popularity because Macmillan, the publishers of THE LAND ACROSS, made the sound decision to release Wolfe’s latest offering as an audiobook. This is a fine production. The material is well suited to the audio medium: It is told in a chronological fashion, and there are several interesting characters who benefit from having their dialog delivered by a great narrator. The producers of this audiobook made some deliberate and consistent decisions that add to the experience: They have chosen to make contractions out of many of the “did not,” “have not,” “would not” combinations throughout the text. And they chose a fantastic narrator who really understands the material. I would love to hear all of his other books made into audiobooks.
This was my first attempt at “Total Immersion” reading; that is, reading the book while simultaneously listening to the same material. Sure I have listened to several books that I had already read in print, but never before made the attempt to make my first exposure to a new book be both by reading and listening at the same time. I can say that my comprehension was very high. Perhaps it is because of the prerequisite of having a quiet place in which to be alone to read and listen. Perhaps it was due to having the material input into my mind via two different sensory media simultaneously. Perhaps I was just able to connect with Gene Wolfe in a profound manner in this novel. But whatever the cause, this was a fine novel reading experience. I recommend this method for those who may not be so inclined. I am looking for the next such experience even now.
The novel is closely akin to several Wolfe’s more recent novels. It is clearly written, involves a likeable protagonist thrown into situations that would rock a normal person, but one that his hero takes in stride. You never know when, or if, the novel will take an odd supernatural turn. So you are looking for ghosts around every corner. Wolfe’s earlier books were more obtuse; fascinatingly difficult to decipher, but is seems that Wolfe has mellowed with age. His recent string of excellent novels shows a kindler, gentler Gene Wolfe. Here is my take on the book: it is written from the perspective of a writer of travel books, relating his account of a trip to the most inaccessible country in Europe. As soon as he crosses the border he is placed into situations that could be very traumatic to you or me, but which the travel book writer views completely objectively, almost from a 3rd person perspective. This sense of calm objectivity gives the story a dream-like quality. No matter how fantastic or unbelievable his life becomes the protagonist never blinks an eye. Just as a dream where even the most unrealistic situations seem oh so real, our mild mannered travelogue guy stumbles into one Walter Mitty adventure after another (the James Thurber and not the recent movie version) and yet still remains an accessible everyman. No superheroes here, just super storytelling.
Jeff Woodman is really wonderful narrating this book. He has a mastery of the Eastern European accents used for several of the characters. I many cases Woodman’s inflection made the meaning of a passage more clear than I could have done was I reading it on my own. Wolfe writes the dialog superbly. By the way, his dialog is always superb, for those not familiar with his work. And in this novel, set in an unnamed, and imaginary, eastern European country, the characters are written with an awkward sense of English syntax that is difficult to follow smoothly without sub vocalizing. With Jeff Woodman reading the book into my ear as I was reading the text I could feel my brain first stumble over a piece of dialog, which is delivered by a character in this eastern European dialect, as I read slightly ahead of the narrator. Then, while still pondering the dialect, Jeff Woodman’s voice caught up with my eyes and instantly made the passage seem clear and natural. Example at the 6:50:17 time mark: “No I. I know where it is.” This happened time and again during the reading and listening to this book. So, I can honestly say that the narration of Jeff Woodman made this a better book that it would have been for me had I been reading alone.
"Complex story is well-read but a bit frustrating"
Firstly, I admit that listening to a Wolfe novel for the first time as an audiobook may not be ideal. Wolfe stories are complex, and losing the ability to flip back a few pages to check things probably means I missed more details than I might have otherwise. The narration in this book is excellent, however.
The plot involves a young American journalist traveling to a mysterious east-european country where he is imprisoned by the police, is kidnapped, escapes, is recaptured and eventually ends up solving crimes on their behalf. All of this is overlaid with occult and ghost elements.
As might be imagined, the plot gets complicated and hard to follow. It seems like the story ends abruptly with a lot of loose ends but I'm hesitant in claiming that they're really loose. I'll probably understand things better on a re-read/listen.
I must admit to feeling the same slight disappointment with this book as I've felt with all Wolfe novels since The Wizard Knight. There are some commonalities in these later works that I personally find irritating.
Firstly, the personality of the narrator. Other reviewers have mentioned that the voice of the first person narrator sounds weirdly old-fashioned, like a high-school footballer from a 50's sitcom. It sounds oddly out of place in a story set in the present day.
Secondly is the portrayal of the female characters, who all inexplicably want to sleep with the narrator. I was especially disheartened when this happened even with an otherwise convincing and well-drawn character around the middle of the story.
Thirdly, there is a lot more of what I've started to call "sitting around being clever". This started in the Long Sun books and has got worse since. Basically, the characters spend pages and pages talking (in cafes in this book) to each other explaining how they worked things out, saying stuff like "I'll answer that in a minute but first I want to talk about...". Infuriating.
If you're a fan of Wolfe classics like the Long/Short/New Sun series you'll find this a very different beast, and may not enjoy it as much. If you've enjoyed more recent Wolfe works like The Sorcerer's House and An Evil Guest, then you'll probably find The Land Across entertaining.
"A conversation review"
This review was originally published at Fantasy Literature.
Bill: Kat and I both read Gene Wolfe’s The Land Across last week. I read the print version produced by Tor and Kat read the audio version produced by Audible and narrated by Jeff Woodman. I wrote most of the following review, but Kat insisted on sticking in her comments so she didn’t have to write her own review. That’s how this review became a conversation.
Bill: Let’s be honest. In an ideal world, nobody should be reviewing a Gene Wolfe book having only read it once. The guy just has too much going on, too much slippery subtlety, too much unreliability, too much word play and a sense that there is always a layer underneath the layer underneath the layer you think you caught a glimpse of. But we don’t live in an ideal world, and so despite knowing there’s a whole lot going on in The Land Across that we probably missed on our one trip through it, here goes…
Kat: Actually, maybe I’m a dunce, but I didn’t feel like there was anything going on that we missed. I think The Land Across is a different kind of book than what we’ve seen from Wolfe before. I don’t think we missed the subtlety, I think the book is missing it. But that doesn’t mean it’s a bad book — it was highly readable (especially with the excellent audio narration provided by Jeff Woodman). It was a weird trip through a strange world, and weird trips through strange worlds is something Gene Wolfe does exceptionally well.
Bill: Describing it as a trip is appropriate, as the book [we now enter the recap stage of the review] is told from the first-person point of view of Grafton, an American travel writer who decides to try and visit the titular (and unnamed) eastern European country, which is mysteriously difficult to enter:
Visitors who try to drive get into a tangle of unmarked mountain roads… Most drivers who make it through… are turned back at the border… Some are arrested. A few of the ones who are arrested never get out.
Persevering through several failed attempts by air (two canceled flights, one that cited bad weather as an excuse not to land), Gratfon attempts to enter by train and finally succeeds.
Kat: I think this was my favorite part of the book, when Grafton is trying to get into the Land but finds that “all maps are wrong.” I liked the surreal dreamy feel and felt like this was the most Wolfe-ish aspect of the book. Some of this dreaminess lingers for the rest of the story, but it is usually overshadowed by the thriller/ mystery/ police procedural / ghost story aspects of the plot.
Bill: I agree; this was perhaps my favorite aspect as well, both the entry into the country and the surreal nature of the city’s early descriptions and his imprisonment. I wouldn’t have minded more of this Calvino-like style. So, after he crosses the border, he is immediately arrested, and then imprisoned in this country’s unique fashion — he is sent to live with a man (Kleon) and his wife (Martya) in their home, and if he ever doesn’t spend the night there Kleon will be shot. As Grafton tries to wend his way through the baroquely absurd bureaucracy, and gain his freedom, we at first think this book is “simply” going to be a Kafkaesque/Orwellian sort of narrative as we can settle down into familiar territory while Grafton struggles to find offices (city streets are unnamed), suffers from sore feet (there are almost no cars), and gets caught up with the JAKA (this country’s not-so-secret secret police).
But soon Grafton is renting out a haunted house complete with ghosts, corpses, and rumors of buried treasure; conversing with a mysterious man in black who hangs out in a castle alleged to be Vlad the Impaler’s summer home and who is comfortable among wolves, and getting embroiled in the pursuit of a sect of Satanists. Throw in a some voodoo dolls, a mysterious man who may or may not be the Leader pictured on the posters around town, and a severed hand that crawls around of its own volition, and what we end up with is kind of The Trial /Roger Corman-Police Procedural / The City and the City / Lonely Planet.
Kat: It’s a really strange mix.
Bill: Yes. Yes it is. The narration, as mentioned is first-person from Grafton’s point of view, and one always has to be a little suspicious. It’s all done as a flashback and so at times he’ll reveal some point only to tell the reader he’ll explain later. He is constantly telling us he is leaving things out, skipping over unimportant or redundant points. Kat, were you suspicious of the narrator?
Kat: Gene Wolfe is famous for his unreliable narrators, but in this case I felt that Grafton was trustworthy and that he was merely trying to hasten the story by leaving out minor points. Perhaps my different perception came from listening to the audio version. The narrator sounded sincere and dependable, even when he told us that he was leaving stuff out. Jeff Woodman did a great job with Grafton’s voice — it’s probably what kept me reading The Land Across as eagerly as I did.
Bill: Hmmm, maybe I should learn to trust more. I didn’t think I was missing much in the gaps, but I did wonder about some of his perceptions. I agree though that Grafton has an engaging voice, and is mostly likable, though his youth and somewhat ambiguous ethics at times will give readers pause.
Kat: Oh, yes. There were two things about Grafton that kept throwing me out of the story. One was that he was so passive — he accepted all the unfair things that were happening to him. Most young American men wouldn’t. I suppose we could explain this away by saying that Grafton actually wanted to stay in the area because he was writing a travel book and perhaps his experiences with their government would be good source material. Still, I thought he was too accepting of the rules of a fascist government.
Bill: I also had some concerns about the ease and sometimes glee with which Grafton entered into a working relationship with what is basically a police state. Perhaps Wolfe is saying something with that. And I agree with his passivity. And when you say “young American,” it reminded me how I thought he was at times a bit all over the map in terms of how his maturity level was portrayed. What’s the other thing that bothered you?
Kat: I’m glad you asked. The way Grafton thinks and talks about women seems old-fashionedly sexist for a young man who’s sophisticated enough to be a world traveler. At first I thought that was because this story was taking place a few decades ago, but then he mentioned his iPhone and I realized that the problem was the way Wolfe writes about women and sex. It sounds like how guys talked back when Wolfe was Grafton’s age — not how they talk now. Wolfe has the tone and lingo all wrong. Don’t you think?
Bill: Yes, I also had some difficulty with the portrayal of the women. Women seem to throw themselves at Grafton almost immediately, whether they are married or high-level agents of JAKA. I didn’t like the ease with which Grafton found his way into their beds. I admit, this was part of my reason I wondered about how Grafton portrayed things as narrator, as it just didn’t seem that Wolfe would portray women in this light.
Related to this is that, in typical Wolfe fashion, characters sometimes, often perhaps, have not only hidden motives but unexplained ones, which can leave the reader feeling a bit at sea. Wolfe also plays with linguistics as characters often speak in languages not their own or in pidgin sort of speech, making the reader strain to follow the thread of dialogue at times. Between the unreliable narrator, the dialogue hovering just on the edge of clarity, the shifting storylines (broad satire to haunted house story to private investigator mode to classic ghost story etc.), the at times enigmatic motivations, not to mention of course the several underlying mysteries that can’t be clearly and quickly explained (because then they wouldn’t be mysteries) — who tried to kill X, where did the severed hand come from, how can it move, who is the leader of the Satanist Cult, what do they want, whose side is Martya on, is the JAKA agent Naala on Grafton’s side, etc. — the reader is rarely if ever comfortable.
Kat: Yes, and though I enjoyed listening to Grafton’s story, through most of it I was acutely aware that I had no idea where it was all going. There didn’t seem to be a goal or a plan. Just a journey.
Bill: I know what you mean, though I liked that lack of comfort, the richly absurd tapestry being woven and then rewoven into a different picture. And the mishmash of supernatural elements — the hand, the Dracula-ish character (I’m going to go with the land across being at least a version of Transylvania), the haunted houses and ghosts and witches — and enjoyed for the most part (at times it seemed a little padded) the detective story. I found the Satanist cult-plot/resolution less engaging than the journey itself.
Kat: I liked the lack of comfort, too, but now that I’ve finished The Land Across, I’m still wondering what the point was? Basically, what is the purpose of this book? It didn’t seem to me that all those elements came together to form something meaningful and/or enjoyable in the end.
Bill: I have to agree that The Land Across isn’t compelling; I picked it up and put it down several times which is a clear sign the book hasn’t grabbed me, especially with a sub-300 page book like this one that I would normally polish off in a single sitting if I were really enjoying it.
Kat: I think I found it a little more readable than you did but, again, I feel certain that this was due to the excellent narration of the audiobook. Woodman’s pleasant and enthusiastic voice kept me listening. But I was hoping for some big reveal in the end to make it feel like it was worth so much of my time.
Bill: Hmm, I don’t think I can argue that. As mentioned at the start, like most Wolfe novels, this one probably deserves if not requires another reading In the end. I’d say that The Land Across mostly satisfies, is enjoyable enough, keeps the reader on their toes, is well and cleverly plotted, and makes deft use of the language/culture differences between the young American narrator and his host setting. At this point though, I’d call it a lesser Wolfe, but most would take that.
Kat: Absolutely true.
"I am surprised this is by Gene Wolfe"
It could be that I'm missing some subtlety of the storyline, but I'm finding it hard to believe that this book was written by Gene Wolfe. This is entirely unlike his previous books. Perhaps he is trying a new approach to his style of writing. I found the story somewhat convoluted which I don't necessarily dislike but it was wholly unsatisfying at the end.
"Okay, but not great, Wolfe"
This was an okay pastime.
But in the light of futuristic series (Executioner, et al), pretty thin.
The narration passable in the beginning because the main character goes in naive, but should be hardened and cynical by the end. And given that this is the character's recounting, that irony and grit should be apparent.
As it is, he comes off like a wannabe in chinos.
"An excessively twisted tale"
The narrator (Jeff Woodman) was the star of this experience. That's the only reason I would recommend it to a friend. However, I could not recommend the book. I enjoy Gene Wolfe's work and his series "The Book of the New Sun" is a masterpiece. This book however is not up to the standards I expect from him.
Easy question. Gene Wolfe weaves a complex web of interconnected chess pieces when he writes a book. Casually dropped hints become crucial to understanding what those chess pieces are doing. In this book, it just becomes simultaneously too hard and of questionable reward to attempt to see the whole board. There are loose ends everywhere, unexplained coincidences, peculiar behaviours and even a determined listener like me will give up eventually and just skim lightly over the story. I'd like a "story so far" section every few chapters so that the puzzles that defeated me are clear and I can enjoy the next part of the story.
He caught the characters perfectly. The lead character is perfect and Jeff even uses intonation to try to give us a little more hint as to the connections being made. The different voices were instantly recognizable.
Yes. I think you have to listen in one sitting if you are to have any chance of understanding the mysterious depths of the plot and characters.
This book left me disappointed. Gene Wolfe always leaves you some clues to puzzle over after you have read one of his books and there is usually a reward. With this book, I was sadly not compelled enough by the mysteries, obvious logic gaps, peculiar behaviours, and twists that made no sense to attempt to unravel it more.
If it made any sense, it would be better.
I didn't get it!
Narrator was excellent
Confusion, annoyance, waste of time
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