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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.
14 of 14 people found this review helpful
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)
4 of 4 people found this review helpful
Gene Wolfe is an unusual writer who concedes much to the reader/listener and is therefore accessible, despite the complexity of his fictional universe. The narrator was great...reminded me of Owen Wilson of all people. A lot of fun.