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Summary

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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  • Si
  • 09-04-21

Amateurish and insipid

I'd never read Gene Wolfe before but I knew the name and hence did not expect to be so disappointed. The writing is drab and functional and appears exhausted by simply conveying its own narrative. Maybe it's because I've come straight here from an M John Harrison binge that Wolf's prose strikes me as about as exciting as a 99p travel guide (ironically, given the subject matter of this novel).

The plot itself, as well as being dull, comes across as contrived and the characters are shoe-horned into their roles, much like in a post-90s Stephen King novel. You get the impression that if you jumped into the writer's world, grabbed one of his characters and demanded they explain why they were doing what they were doing, they would scratch their chin and grimace before admitting, with a puzzled little laugh, that they honestly don't know. You might go on to suggest in that case they might as well forget about the whole thing and go home, at which point they'd thank you, get up and leave.

On the upside, Jeff Woodman's narration is on the ball. He's clearly the go-to guy for central-European female vocals.

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  • Tango
  • 29-11-13

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.

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  • Doug D. Eigsti
  • 02-01-14

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.

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  • Dave
  • 31-12-13

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)

6 people found this helpful

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  • Amazon Customer
  • 06-08-18

Like The Knight, but for spy-thrillers

So, I've only had one pass through "The Land Across", and because it's Gene Wolfe, I know I've sailed past whole oceans of subtle metaphor and meaning, but I'm going to offer my opinion still. If you liked "The Knight" and "The Wizard Knight" this novel works similarly, taking a genre style, a spy-mystery-thriller in this case, and playing around with it in a Wolfian way. The main character, Grafton, lives out a dream-like, James Bond adventure in a mysterious, Kafkaesque country in Eastern Euorpe. He beds numerous femme-fatales and solves mysteries with the deft touch of a Dashiell Hammett detective. Grafton is a man-child and the female characters are flat and objectified, which is off-putting, but it seems like an intentional exploration of male-empowerment fantasies, like in "The Knight". If you like that work, give "The Land Across" a try.

Of course, this is a Wolfe novel, so I might be missing everything in this opinion.

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  • Andrew Reid
  • 01-12-15

Complex story is well-read but a bit frustrating

Any additional comments?

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.

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  • Patrick Mdarcy
  • 03-04-21

Could not make it halfway through.

I tried. I really tried. The narrator does a fine job and should not be criticized. However the story goes everywhere and nowhere at the same time and you never get interested in these vapid one dimensional characters. The protagonist is of no moral value and acts as though he has pulled along by a string.

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  • Knowinglee
  • 08-07-19

Great Story, strange reading.

Gene Wolfe is among my favorite if not my favorite author. While this isn't my favorite book of his, I do think it is a really fun who dunnit, detective style novel.

What did make it a bit rough was the reading of the audio book. There were quite a few times where I had to disconnect my interpretation of the audio as the inflections he gives seem to not go with the content/situations written in the book and therefore don't seem to carry as much weight as they would otherwise. Very neutral reading, but if you can get past that it's a great story!

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  • Mark
  • 04-01-19

Very Clever

The author has quite an imagination. This book was engaging and funny. Well narrated. 5 stars.

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  • Steven Z
  • 12-06-15

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.

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  • David
  • 21-04-14

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.