It’s been nearly a year since I last updated this site. This is hopefully going to change, though I doubt I’ll do a story every week like I was doing before. Instead, I’ll just update with things as they come. Hopefully, they’ll just happen to come a bit more often. I’m going to start off with a book review!
I just finished The Land Across by Gene Wolfe. Let me preface this review by saying that Gene Wolfe is my favorite author. Of my top 10 novels, at least half are by Wolfe (counting his various series as individual novels, as he does). His greatest novels are perhaps the finest speculative fiction ever written, his good stuff is still great, and even his average stuff is good.
And that’s what The Land Across is. It’s a good novel or an average one for Wolfe.
It follows an American travel writer, Grafton, who goes to an unnamed obscure Eastern European country which has recently thrown off Communism. His passport is confiscated by corrupt officials and he is then arrested for not having a passport. As he sits under house arrest, he is soon pulled into the world of intrigue and the occult.
The plot is quite a good one. It is, as with all Wolfe novels, drenched with hints about the true natures of characters and events. The incredibly insightful might put together a few of these hints as they read, but most of us won’t get them until they’ve reached the end. And even then, there are dozens others that will only be found on a second or third read-through. It is never predictable or formulaic, but plays with tropes here and there to keep the reader guessing.
And the writing, as always, is top notch. Few authors utilize language in such a beautiful and succinct way as Wolfe. His mastery of language is apparent the entire way through. It’s hard to exactly explain what this means exactly, but the best I can put it is that never is a word wasted. I never became bogged down with reading a section, never exasperated with the phrasing or word usage, never once thought a sentence could be rewritten to carry more impact.
High praise so far, so why did I say it was merely good?
Well, the big problem is the characters. Grafton is the now-formulaic Gene Wolfe Standard Protagonist. He is a male who is naive about his circumstances and reality, who is somehow more capable and important than everyone else in the story. He has sudden insights into others and the events he is involved in, but often fails to tell the reader these insights directly. On several occasions, he makes comments about having figured something out, then stating that the reader should be able to figure it out himself (a kind of meta-commentary that can start to get grating after a while).
The issue with Grafton (and the issue I had with the protagonist of Home Fires) is that he lacks the pathos of Wofle’s greater characters. Severian has literally been raised since he was an infant to be a torturer, cut off from normal society and life. Silk is a preist who has undergone a religious epiphany. Abel is literally a child who has been put into a man’s body. Latro has lost all his memory and ability to form new memories, challenging his very sense of self.
Grafton doesn’t have that. He is in a bad situation, yes, but it’s external rather than internal. He does not go through the character struggles the others do. Because of this, he seems to go through very little personal growth as well. And, ultimately, he’s kinda boring and often comes off as a bit of a macho doof. He’s not really dislikable, nor is he likable. He’s merely the vehicle for the story rather than the story itself.
The other characters are not much more memorable than Grafton. There are a pair of women who become romantic with Grafton (another staple of Wolfe protagonists, multiple women becoming romantic with them), one of which is merely there to provide Grafton with a person to rescue. There is also a doll salesman and his wife, two more Americans who have become stuck in the country because of corrupt officials, who become centrally important to the plot midway through. The salesman has some interesting qualities, mainly for his importance to the plot rather than anything he does in the story.
The most interesting characters are all minor ones, characters we don’t see very often and are absent for long periods of the story, such as the man whose home Grafton is placed in while he is under house arrest. The man is violent and somewhat misogynistic, and Grafton sleeps with his younger, attractive wife. Then there are a pair of priests, one elderly, one young, who are of mild importance who both have much more personality than Grafton does.
In closing, the Land Across is a well-written novel with an interesting plot, ultimately held back by its rather bland characters. It’s still quite good and is a worthy read, but unlike some other Wolfe novels I can’t see myself coming back to it in the future.