The strange lands of SF master Gene Wolfe

"The Land Across" by Gene Wolfe (Tor, November 2013). Photo Credit: Handout

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Will someone please tell me where Gene Wolfe is, right now? After having spent the past two weeks reading and then rereading and then scampering between pages for vital clues in his new novel, "The Land Across" (Tor, $25.99), I've begun to assume at some point I'll turn a corner or wake up in the middle of the night and find him standing right in front of me. 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.

"The Land Across" starts off pretending to be a travel book about "the land across the mountains," which is never named, but it seems like a safe assumption that the mountains in question are the Carpathians, while the unnamed little Eastern European country could be Transylvania. Fairly quickly, Wolfe's novel becomes a story about a guy who's 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 that's 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 jailer's 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 country's government and culture. It's a post-Soviet place, with lots of maddening bureaucratic intrigue over seemingly unimportant details; readers may recognize this confusion from any of Franz Kafka's novels. What's 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, rather than continue to resist.

The question of whether "The Land Across" ends happily is mostly a question of whether you've been reading carefully. Wolfe pushes Grafton's entertaining misadventures into the novel's foreground, but he's masterly at reminding attentive readers of little details we didn't remember we knew -- the word "vampire" comes up only once in this novel, but very quickly you'll find yourself playing "spot the undead" without knowing why. Then you'll wonder how much of the book has been censored, since Grafton doesn't return to America at the end. Is he still there now?

There's more besides -- a fascinating American magician named Russ Rathaus, who designs incredibly lifelike voodoo dolls; a frigid secret agent who becomes our hero's keeper and then his girlfriend; and a severed hand with a mind of its own. When "The Land Across" is scary, it's really scary, made more disturbing by Grafton's occasional inability to tell us what's happening: "I cannot describe it any better than by saying I felt like I was turning into my own shadow," Grafton says of one evil encounter. "I was getting thinner and darker somehow, and I felt light enough to float away. Other stuff was happening, too."

For all its midnight-movie trappings, this is an incredibly complex book, written so carefully that practically every page rewards a second glance after you've plowed your way through the romance/blood-curdling horror/adventure narrative a first time. But there's tremendous fun to be had right there on its surface, as well.

Sci-fi authors get tribute anthologies pretty regularly, but it's rare they actually write new stories to be included in them: Wolfe has not one but two stories in "Shadows of the New Sun: Stories in Honor of Gene Wolfe" (Tor, $25.99). The book is a collection of work by Wolfe's professional fans, including Timothy Zahn, Michael A. Stackpole and Neil Gaiman, edited by Bill Fawcett and J.E. Mooney. Appropriately, Wolfe's own stories are among the best -- "Frostfree," about a refrigerator that takes charge of a particularly chilly man's life, and "The Sea of Memory," about a place outside of time. Also of note are the weird Western novelette-in-letters "Epistoleros" (get it?) by Aaron Allston, Gaiman's atmospheric "A Lunar Labyrinth" and Michael Swanwick's "The She-Wolf's Hidden Grin," easily the story that most successfully mimics Wolfe's own voice. It's a treat for fans of the sci-fi statesman's writing, and a solid introduction to the same.

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