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, Wolfes novel becomes a story about a guy whos 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 thats 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 jailers 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 countrys government and culture.
Its a post-Soviet place, with lots of maddening bureaucratic intrigue over seemingly unimportant details; readers may recognize this confusion from any of Franz Kafkas novels. Whats 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 youve been reading carefully. Wolfe pushes Graftons entertaining misadventures into the novels foreground, but hes masterful at reminding attentive readers of little details we didnt remember we knew the word vampire comes up only once in this novel, but very quickly youll 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 youve plowed your way through the romance/blood-curdling horror/adventure narrative a first time.