Book Review: The strange lands of sci-fi master Gene Wolfe

NEWSDAYDecember 22, 2013 

  • ‘THE LAND ACROSS’ by Gene Wolfe; Tor ($25.99)

Gene Wolfe, probably best known for his “Solar Cycle” series of far-future sci-fi novels, has been regularly praised for his subtlety, but “The Land Across” balances that gift for nuance with plenty of pulpy action.

Fairly quickly, Wolfe’s novel becomes a story about a guy who’s writing this very book under the worst possible circumstances and trying desperately to tell us about it, dodging black magic and facing down unthinkable horrors.

Our hero, if that’s the right word, calls himself Grafton, and gets immediately arrested upon crossing the border, where two border guards and a third, shadowy figure (who tends to lurk around haunted or otherwise disturbed places) confiscate his passport and remand him to the custody of a local guy in the town of Puraustays.

As Grafton is off enjoying the local color by seducing his jailer’s wife, getting involved with the local secret police and falling afoul of a truly horrific cult, Wolfe patiently saturates each encounter with the oddities of the country’s government and culture.

It’s a post-Soviet place, with lots of maddening bureaucratic intrigue over seemingly unimportant details; readers may recognize this confusion from any of Franz Kafka’s novels. What’s particularly fascinating is that Grafton seems, on the surface, to be a fairly crummy human being, and eventually just throws in with the bad guys.

The question of whether “The Land Across” ends happily is mostly a question of whether you’ve been reading carefully. Wolfe pushes Grafton’s entertaining misadventures into the novel’s foreground, but he’s masterful at reminding attentive readers of little details we didn’t remember we knew — the word “vampire” comes up only once in this novel, but very quickly you’ll find yourself playing “spot the undead” without knowing why.

For all its midnight-movie trappings, this is an incredibly complex book, written so carefully that practically every page rewards a second glance after you’ve plowed your way through the romance/blood-curdling horror/adventure narrative a first time.

Idaho Statesman is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service