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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.
15 of 15 people found this review helpful
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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