The Land Across

Gene Wolfe
The Land Across Cover

A Strange Story, With a Lot Going On...


Have you ever traveled to a foreign country where the primary language is different from yours? Perhaps people there speak a rudimentary version of your language? While visiting that place, do you find in yourself a tendency to start speaking somewhat in the manner of the indigenous people? Maybe it's just me, but I have definitely found myself doing this when visiting other places and cultures. As a result, the voice of the protagonist in The Land Across was not too difficult for me to identify with. At first, the odd syntax of the dialogue between characters was slightly off-putting but it didn't take long for things to click into place.

Our main character is Grafton, an American writer of travel books who hears of a country in Eastern Europe (in a land across the mountains), for which no travel books have been written. Taking it upon himself to write such a book, he buys an airline ticket to the place. But the plane is not able to land so he tries again - with the same result. "This is a difficult country to get to!", Grafton says to himself. Taking the train, he finally reaches his destination but upon arrival, his passport is confiscated - and he is immediately detained for not having a passport! Dumbfounded, he is then taken not to jail, but to a local residence where he is told to stay or the man living there will be shot to death! Subsequent events become more and more strange from there.

Judging by the blurb on the inner leaf, one might get the impression that Grafton is to be a hapless victim, in over his head and doomed to struggle from one challenge to the next. In fact, it doesn't take him long to weasel his way into the good graces of JAKA, the secret police. He quickly goes from prisoner to lackey to secret policeman - getting into fights and getting with the women - all while unraveling occult mysteries that involve hidden treasure, a secret society, a severed hand, (still attached to an incorporeal witch), the church, a mysterious man in black that may or may not be the ghost of Vlad the Impaler, and an American voodoo-doll manufacturer and his wife - both also imprisoned in this strange Kafkaesque country in which they have become mired.

The preceding paragraph only begins to describe the strange shenanigans that go on in this short but very complex novel. Many reviewers complain about the writing style - and the way the characters are voiced - but I found that voicing to be one of the more effective things about the book. At the end of the day, this may not be one of Wolfe's strongest works but, let's face it, a mediocre Gene Wolfe novel will still stand head & shoulders over most other contemporary urban fantasy. This is a strange book, with a lot going on, that will undoubtedly stand the test of time and be enhanced by a re-read or three.