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The Land Across by Gene Wolfe
Cover Artist: Photo: Stephen Carroll, David at Myrtille, Trevillion Images
Review by Benjamin Wald
Tor Books Hardcover  ISBN/ITEM#: 9780765335951
Date: 26 November 2013 List Price $25.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK

Links: Author's Wikipedia Entry / Show Official Info /

Gene Wolfe is a difficult author to review, and his latest novel The Land Across is no exception. Many of Wolfe's strengths are on display here, including his subtlety, intriguing and occasionally inscrutable characterization, and his seemingly simple yet elegant and elusive prose. The novel switches somewhat vertiginously between Kafkaesque satire, hunted house story, detective story, and more, and tests the reader's attention to detail as only Wolfe does.

But, there are some troubling ethical questions raised by this novel, and while it would be folly to ascribe the views of any of the characters to Wolfe himself, the wrap up of the story left me disquieted by the way that Wolfe has chosen to portray some of the choices of his characters. In the end, I enjoyed the novel, although it is not Wolfe's best work, but I was disquieted by some of the political conclusions the novel seems to point towards.

The story is told in the first person as if the narrator is writing his story down, although who is the intended recipient of the account is never made clear. The narrator is an American tourist and travel writer who, at the start of the novel, is dragged off his train in an unnamed and mysterious eastern European country. The police take his passport and then detain him for not having passport.

Their bizarre system of imprisonment is to send him to stay with a man and his wife, with the threat that if he leaves they will shoot the man who is his supposed captor. From here, the narrator becomes involved in an attempt to find hidden treasure in a haunted house, is kidnapped by political extremists, and then recruited by the secret police to track down a cult of Satanists. Despite this medley of plot elements, Wolfe manages to bring everything together, with elements that the reader might have written off as irrelevant ending up as crucial pieces of the story.

My problem with the story is that, by the end, the narrator is happily working for the secret police, helping them arrest suspects while knowing full well that they make use of torture and arbitrary arrests, and knowing first hand how they will ignore any kind of due process. The story never seems to say that this is a bad thing, and the fact that the antagonists are Satanists seems to give tacit support to these tactics.

Even worse, the dictator who rules the country and is responsible for the narrators early imprisonment is strongly hinted to be some kind of supernatural entity, perhaps even divine, who detained the narrator in order to allow him to play his role in uncovering the Satanist cult. This adds to the sense that the narrative is condoning the tactics of the police state.

Add to this some worrying sexual politics, where the narrator comes to realize that sleeping with the married woman he had been carrying on an affair with is wrong because she belongs to her husband, and thus refuses to help her get to America with him, and I am left distinctly uncomfortable by the novel as a whole. Now, as I have said, Gene Wolfe is an author who is known for his subtlety above all else, so perhaps I am missing something here, but my enjoyment of the novel was diminished by these issues.

Overall, Wolfe remains a skillful storyteller, and a unique voice in the SF landscape. This novel lacks the power of some of his earlier works, like The Wizard Knight, and the political implications are somewhat baffling. Still, Wolfe on an off-day is still a major talent, and this is certainly a clever and interesting novel.

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