Skip to main content

The Land Across (Gene Wolfe) review

Fans of Gene Wolfe's fantasy writing will recognise distinct echoes of what I'd regard as his masterpiece, There Are Doors, in this recent novel, The Land Across.

In There Are Doors, the protagonist travels to an alternative universe, a place where his interactions with women dominate what happens to him, where something he carries in his pocket is both very strange and essential to the plot. In The Land Across, the protagonist, a travel writer, takes the train to an ex-Soviet bloc country which no one really knows about, existing separate from our world like an alternative universe, a place where his interactions with women dominate what happens to him, where something he carries in his pocket is both very strange and essential to the plot. That doesn't make it in any way a copy of the earlier work, but the similarities are striking.

I don't think this is as good a novel as There Are Doors, but it certainly has plenty of interesting features. If you don't know Wolfe, you could read it and think it's atmospheric in a rather clunky way, but not much happens. It doesn't at all surprise me that a bad Amazon review thinks it is a badly written book about Slovakia, totally missing that this is a fantasy. If you were to describe the plot (which I won't), it wouldn't sound all that exciting. But with Wolfe, you have to absorb the way he tells the story, to inhabit the quirkiness and the tiny details where things aren't quite normal - and that way you can find plenty in its subtle depths.

For most of the book, we could be occupying a fantasy-free, simple, isolated, former Soviet dictatorship (Belarus is probably the closest real world parallel, though Wolfe's country is a lot more low tech), with a degree of Kafkaesque bureaucratic nightmare and a not very secret secret police playing a major role in everyday life. As part of Wolfe's exploration of the nature of dictatorship, it's quite easy for the reader to feel sympathetic with the secret police when they are effectively on the side of good, but always with the uncomfortable frisson that this shouldn't be right. However there are also supernatural elements that simply fit in as part of the way life is. Although surprised, no one really changes the way they behave because of them - the supernatural is part of everyday life.

Another Wolfe characteristic you'll find represented strongly here is getting three quarters of the way through the book without being sure what's going on (though the setting is less ambiguous than in There Are Doors) and reaching the end to realise there are plenty of threads that were never tied up and left hanging to jangle your nerve endings. If you like a nice, neat, tied up plot this isn't the book for you.

Without doubt one of Wolfe's more significant novels of the last decade, though not as good as The Sorcerer's House, and a clear indication that he's still got the touch. Arguably it is not the best book with which to start reading Wolfe's fantasy novels (I'd recommend Castleview or Pandora by Holly Hollander) but a strong addition to the canon that is essential reading for any fan.

You can find The Land Across at and
Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you  


  1. I also really liked 'There are Doors' & have not read 'The Land Across'. I did listen to the audio book however, and the narrator is a extremely good -his delivery, perfectly weighted & pitched to suit this strange, engaging and compelling tale. Its the audible version of a "page turner". So addictive.


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

Is 5x3 the same as 3x5?

The Internet has gone mildly bonkers over a child in America who was marked down in a test because when asked to work out 5x3 by repeated addition he/she used 5+5+5 instead of 3+3+3+3+3. Those who support the teacher say that 5x3 means 'five lots of 3' where the complainants say that 'times' is commutative (reversible) so the distinction is meaningless as 5x3 and 3x5 are indistinguishable. It's certainly true that not all mathematical operations are commutative. I think we are all comfortable that 5-3 is not the same as 3-5.  However. This not true of multiplication (of numbers). And so if there is to be any distinction, it has to be in the use of English to interpret the 'x' sign. Unfortunately, even here there is no logical way of coming up with a definitive answer. I suspect most primary school teachers would expands 'times' as 'lots of' as mentioned above. So we get 5 x 3 as '5 lots of 3'. Unfortunately that only wor

Why I hate opera

If I'm honest, the title of this post is an exaggeration to make a point. I don't really hate opera. There are a couple of operas - notably Monteverdi's Incoranazione di Poppea and Purcell's Dido & Aeneas - that I quite like. But what I do find truly sickening is the reverence with which opera is treated, as if it were some particularly great art form. Nowhere was this more obvious than in ITV's recent gut-wrenchingly awful series Pop Star to Opera Star , where the likes of Alan Tichmarsh treated the real opera singers as if they were fragile pieces on Antiques Roadshow, and the music as if it were a gift of the gods. In my opinion - and I know not everyone agrees - opera is: Mediocre music Melodramatic plots Amateurishly hammy acting A forced and unpleasant singing style Ridiculously over-supported by public funds I won't even bother to go into any detail on the plots and the acting - this is just self-evident. But the other aspects need some ex

Which idiot came up with percentage-based gradient signs

Rant warning: the contents of this post could sound like something produced by UKIP. I wish to make it clear that I do not in any way support or endorse that political party. In fact it gives me the creeps. Once upon a time, the signs for a steep hill on British roads displayed the gradient in a simple, easy-to-understand form. If the hill went up, say, one yard for every three yards forward it said '1 in 3'. Then some bureaucrat came along and decided that it would be a good idea to state the slope as a percentage. So now the sign for (say) a 1 in 10 slope says 10% (I think). That 'I think' is because the percentage-based slope is so unnatural. There are two ways we conventionally measure slopes. Either on X/Y coordiates (as in 1 in 4) or using degrees - say at a 15° angle. We don't measure them in percentages. It's easy to visualize a 1 in 3 slope, or a 30 degree angle. Much less obvious what a 33.333 recurring percent slope is. And what's a 100% slope