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The Land Across [Kindle Edition]

Gene Wolfe
3.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)

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Book Description

An American writer of travel guides in need of a new location chooses to travel to a small and obscure Eastern European country. The moment Grafton crosses the border he is in trouble, much more than he could have imagined. His passport is taken by guards, and then he is detained for not having it. He is released into the custody of a family, but is again detained. It becomes evident that there are supernatural agencies at work, but they are not in some ways as threatening as the brute forces of bureaucracy and corruption in that country. Is our hero in fact a spy for the CIA? Or is he an innocent citizen caught in a Kafkaesque trap?

In The Land Across, Gene Wolfe keeps us guessing until the very end, and after.

A Kirkus Reviews Best Fiction Book of 2013

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About the Author

Gene Wolfe is one of the most admired and respected living writers of SF and fantasy. He is the author of "The Fifth Head of Cerberus, the bestselling The Book of the New Sun tetralogy, as well as among many others including Soldier of the Mist, The Sorcerer's House, Home Fires, The Knight, The Wizard, Peace, and The Book of the Long Sun. He is also a prolific writer of distinguished short fiction, which is collected in many volumes over the last four decades, most recently in The Best of Gene Wolfe. He received the World Fantasy Award for Life Achievement, the Edward E. Smith Memorial Award, and multiple Nebula and Locus awards, among other honors. In 2007, he was inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame. In 2012, he was awarded the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America Grand Master Award. He lives in Barrington, Illinois.

Product details

  • Format: Kindle Edition
  • File Size: 1024 KB
  • Print Length: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Tor Books; Reprint edition (26 Nov. 2013)
  • Sold by: Amazon Media EU S.à r.l.
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B00DA6XJY0
  • Text-to-Speech: Enabled
  • X-Ray:
  • Word Wise: Enabled
  • Enhanced Typesetting: Enabled
  • Average Customer Review: 3.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #419,884 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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More About the Author

Gene Wolfe is the author of two dozen novels and hundreds of shorter stories. He is best known for the three multi-part series The Book of the New Sun, The Book of the Long Sun, and The Book of the Short Sun, as well as for the acclaimed duology, The Wizard Knight. Over his forty-year career, he has won the Nebula Award, the John W. Campbell Award, the World Fantasy Award, the British Science Fiction Award, the Locus Reader's Poll, the Rhysling (for poetry), and many others. In 1996, he was given a Lifetime Achievement Award by the World Fantasy Convention, and in 2007 he was inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame. He lives in Barrington, Illinois, with his wife Rosemary.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
By Brian Clegg TOP 500 REVIEWER
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. 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.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars SF Genie Still Going Strong 24 Jan. 2014
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
It's not easy to review Wolfe since even the worst Wolfe is much better than some of best commercial works in genre of fantasy and science fiction. Last couple years old wolf is writing strange fantastic, dreamlike novels which plays with different combinations of genres. They are not so cryptic as some of his older works. Or better if you are the Wolfe fan you are used to mysteries and hidden jokes in his works. If you are new Wolfe reader I envy you. You are about to discover large, mysterious, beautiful world of Gene Wolfes writing. The Land Across continues in the same tone as previous novel (but in totally different world) and in spite that it is not as complex and strong as Wolfe's serialized worlds of New,Long and Short Sun it's still good read and, as I said, stylistically better read than many other commercial genre novels.
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2 of 21 people found the following review helpful
By Aiculik
It's enough to read the first page to know what a pile of crap this is. Slovakia is Central European country, as is Austria. The capital of Austria is very close Slovak borders; by train, it takes ONE HOUR to the capital. Even if the character travelled to some town in East Slovakia, there would be no 'hours of wilderness'. He'd have to change the train 2 times, and the train would go through several other cities, where the train would stop. And, surprise surprise, there are no half-timbered houses with sharp roofs in those cities. You can find them in villages in mountain areas, but the train wouldn't go through those.

Do I have to continue? The author obviously thought, 'to hell with it, it's unlikely Slovaks will read this book, and the Americans probably never heard of the country, it's small and therefore obscure and exotic, and I can make up whatever s*** I want about it'.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 4.1 out of 5 stars  33 reviews
16 of 18 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Very entertaining, and puzzling ... 3 Dec. 2013
By Antigone Smith - Published on
Format:Kindle Edition
... as usual, for Wolfe. There were some aspects of the novel that took some getting used to, like the narrator being more crude, more modern, and less adept at writing than many of Wolfe's other first person narrators, but that didn't detract from my enjoyment of the novel very much. The plot is quite complex, and the detail given at various twists and turns is often sparse; if you are an old Wolfe fan and appreciate the many mysteries and unanswered questions that saturated his previous novels, you will find lots to like here.
15 of 18 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Nothing is revealed 16 Dec. 2013
By David R. - Published on
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
Gene Wolfe has a fascinating interest in developing the narrative voice into a fully-formed character. His first-person narrators are never the thin masks for the author's voice of less introspective writers. He has spent much of his career ringing changes on that narrator.

"The Book of the New Sun" takes on the (retrospectively obvious) question--how does the narrator remember all the intricate detail, every word and tic, we conventionally read without questioning? Then "Soldier in the Mist" turns that upside down. "The Book of the Long Sun" plays a game, building a picture of the narrative voice, changing it at the last minute, and inviting the reader to reconsider the entire story. A lot like the kind of "I'm going to blow your mind" games some people like to play on their stoned friends. (I've heard.)

More recent books have worked on the persona and personality of the narrator, cf. "Pandora by Holly Hollander". In "There Are Doors" the third-person narrator is not only limited in view but strangely uninvolved. And in "An Evil Guest" that third person has become something baffling, an observer with an alien viewpoint whose motto seems to be Mary Poppins's "I never explain *anything*".

In "The Land Across" the inscrutable narrator returns to the first person, with results that are at least as baffling. As the story expands, the narrator himself develops quirks and oddities--more than that, _strangenesses_--that seem to demand explanation. There is, as in "There Are Doors", something deeply strange about the narrator, but as it is seen only in reflection it is distorted and fragmented, often seeming as if it about to become clear, never doing so.

This time Mary Poppins is played by Wolfe himself. The narrator doesn't know that there is anything to explain. The author knows but won't. What he gives away he does with style, but what we want he keeps to himself. The most mysterious character in this book is Wolfe.
5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Wolfe Is Never Less Than Fascinating 31 Dec. 2013
By S. E. Golden - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This novel is heavy on dialogue, but it is not 'talky' -- there are well-placed moments of action throughout. The dialogue is key, however, as the characters meet -- often in a café -- to (guardedly) share information and size each other up. As is so often true in a Wolfe book, what is NOT said is just as important (or more!) than what IS said. One of the hallmarks of a Wolfe book is the presentation of puzzles for the reader to solve; this book is more 'conventional' than some of his longer works in that the main character and the reader are essentially endeavoring to solve the same mystery. In his epic-length works the reader sometimes finds herself trying to answer questions (especially questions of identity) that the main character is either 'oblivious of' or 'indifferent to'. In this book those concerns are largely replaced by a strong supporting cast, and the intersections of each character's personal agenda are where the strength of the novel lies.
As usual, rather than studiously trying to avoid the tropes (clichés?) of genre, Wolfe uses these easily recognizable symbols -- in this case, voodoo dolls, witchcraft, Transylvania, mummies, vampires, etc. -- to his advantage in the service of defining character. Fear -- religious and/or mythology based, fear of the unknown (both of the supernatural and that which is fostered by a lack of knowledge/information), fear of the known (the secret police and others that favor adherence to an agenda over the value of human life) -- as a motivating factor is explored in depth; hence, the description of this novel as "Kafkaesque", wherein the hero views his situation as not only hopeless but also purposeless.
Or 'nearly purposeless'. As with any good novel, the struggle of the main character to persevere and survive the trials and tribulations of life, while emerging relatively unscathed (scarred but wiser) and even hopeful for the future, is an end in itself.
24 of 33 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Wolfe in a Different Land 29 Nov. 2013
By The Ginger Man - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Grafton is an American travel writer who journeys to an unnamed country in Eastern Europe to get material for a new book. Upon crossing the border, he is arrested without cause and his passport is sent to the capital pending investigation. Grafton is sentenced to stay in the home of a couple in a local village. What follows is a varied sequence of events that includes finding a body in a house while looking for treasure, being kidnapped by dissidents to star in propaganda broadcasts, acting as a detective for the secret police and saving a love from strangulation by a disembodied hand. As in Kafka's The Trial, Grafton is never confronted with the nature of the charges against him. The Land Across also reminds the reader of Kafka's The Castle because Wolfe's hero spends a large part of his time making little progress in getting to the American embassy to secure assistance.

The problem is that Wolfe is not nearly as successful as Kafka in portraying the surreal as normal. The plot moves slowly. The characters are wooden and the Land Across never seems to pose enough menace to overly concern either Grafton or the reader. The violence is muted and Grafton finds ample opportunity to sleep with his female captors. The food in The Land Across is not great but that is not enough to convey the oppressive sense of tension created by a writer like Kafka.

Wolfe has his characters speak to each other as if they are employing a second language with which they are not overly familiar. This helps remind the reader of the exotic nature of Grafton's locale but also makes even the book's most shrewd characters seem a bit dim after a while. At the same time, the questioning used by Grafton while trying to solve a not fully explained mystery is as complicated as can be found in Chandler's Big Sleep. The mixture of convoluted plot and pidgin english is a tiring one for the reader.

The last third of The Land Across includes an unexpected and rather forced transition to a more traditional, if bizarre, adventure story. Grafton's first person narration suggests that he is just as confused as the reader: "I was getting depressed, angry, and sad at the same time. Tonight I was going to be tortured to death and it did not seem right." Things don't always seem right to Gene Wolfe either as the author just seems to throw his hands up in the air at some points: "You may have noticed that every once in a while I put something in this book that I cannot explain but think I ought to tell you anyway. Okay," he warns, 'this is another of those."

In a very short appendix, Grafton (or Wolfe) apologizes for lecturing the reader before telling us that dictatorship is bad, democracy is a really good idea, ruling is work and we should vote for the right people. If The Land Across is meant simply as political allegory, this has been done better before. The land visited by Grafton is a bureaucratic dystopia with scared citizens, empty stores, secret police and disembodied hands but I'm not sure we learn anything new here either from the Land or from Grafton's plight.

I am a fan of Gene Wolfe's work. To his credit, he does not stick with narrative formulas expected by readers but experiments with cross genre approaches, new styles and novel subject matter. One risk of this eclectic effort is that his output is less even than if he gave his readers more of what had worked in the past. The Land Across is readable and possesses some of the brilliant eccentricities we have come to associate with Gene Wolfe but certainly is not one of his best efforts.
6 of 8 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars This review is a conversation 22 Mar. 2014
By Kat Hooper - Published on
Format:Kindle Edition
Originally posted, with links, at Fantasy Literature.

Kat and I both read Gene Wolfe’s The Land Across last week. I read the print version produced by Tor and Kat read the audio version produced by Audible and narrated by Jeff Woodman. I wrote most of the following review, but Kat insisted on sticking in her comments so she didn’t have to write her own review. That’s how this review became a conversation.

Bill: Let’s be honest. In an ideal world, nobody should be reviewing a Gene Wolfe book having only read it once. The guy just has too much going on, too much slippery subtlety, too much unreliability, too much word play and a sense that there is always a layer underneath the layer underneath the layer you think you caught a glimpse of. But we don’t live in an ideal world, and so despite knowing there’s a whole lot going on in The Land Across that we probably missed on our one trip through it, here goes…

Kat: Actually, maybe I’m a dunce, but I didn’t feel like there was anything going on that we missed. I think The Land Across is a different kind of book than what we’ve seen from Wolfe before. I don’t think we missed the subtlety, I think the book is missing it. But that doesn’t mean it’s a bad book — it was highly readable (especially with the excellent audio narration provided by Jeff Woodman). It was a weird trip through a strange world, and weird trips through strange worlds is something Gene Wolfe does exceptionally well.

Bill: Describing it as a trip is appropriate, as the book [we now enter the recap stage of the review] is told from the first-person point of view of Grafton, an American travel writer who decides to try and visit the titular (and unnamed) eastern European country, which is mysteriously difficult to enter:

"Visitors who try to drive get into a tangle of unmarked mountain roads… Most drivers who make it through… are turned back at the border… Some are arrested. A few of the ones who are arrested never get out."

Persevering through several failed attempts by air (two canceled flights, one that cited bad weather as an excuse not to land), Gratfon attempts to enter by train and finally succeeds.

Kat: I think this was my favorite part of the book, when Grafton is trying to get into the Land but finds that “all maps are wrong.” I liked the surreal dreamy feel and felt like this was the most Wolfe-ish aspect of the book. Some of this dreaminess lingers for the rest of the story, but it is usually overshadowed by the thriller/ mystery/ police procedural / ghost story aspects of the plot.

Bill: I agree; this was perhaps my favorite aspect as well, both the entry into the country and the surreal nature of the city’s early descriptions and his imprisonment. I wouldn’t have minded more of this Calvino-like style. So, after he crosses the border, he is immediately arrested, and then imprisoned in this country’s unique fashion — he is sent to live with a man (Kleon) and his wife (Martya) in their home, and if he ever doesn’t spend the night there Kleon will be shot. As Grafton tries to wend his way through the baroquely absurd bureaucracy, and gain his freedom, we at first think this book is “simply” going to be a Kafkaesque/Orwellian sort of narrative as we can settle down into familiar territory while Grafton struggles to find offices (city streets are unnamed), suffers from sore feet (there are almost no cars), and gets caught up with the JAKA (this country’s not-so-secret secret police).

But soon Grafton is renting out a haunted house complete with ghosts, corpses, and rumors of buried treasure; conversing with a mysterious man in black who hangs out in a castle alleged to be Vlad the Impaler’s summer home and who is comfortable among wolves, and getting embroiled in the pursuit of a sect of Satanists. Throw in a some voodoo dolls, a mysterious man who may or may not be the Leader pictured on the posters around town, and a severed hand that crawls around of its own volition, and what we end up with is kind of The Trial /Roger Corman-Police Procedural / The City and the City / Lonely Planet.

Kat: It’s a really strange mix.

Bill: Yes. Yes it is. The narration, as mentioned is first-person from Grafton’s point of view, and one always has to be a little suspicious. It’s all done as a flashback and so at times he’ll reveal some point only to tell the reader he’ll explain later. He is constantly telling us he is leaving things out, skipping over unimportant or redundant points. Kat, were you suspicious of the narrator?

Kat: Gene Wolfe is famous for his unreliable narrators, but in this case I felt that Grafton was trustworthy and that he was merely trying to hasten the story by leaving out minor points. Perhaps my different perception came from listening to the audio version. The narrator sounded sincere and dependable, even when he told us that he was leaving stuff out. Jeff Woodman did a great job with Grafton’s voice — it’s probably what kept me reading The Land Across as eagerly as I did.

Bill: Hmmm, maybe I should learn to trust more. I didn’t think I was missing much in the gaps, but I did wonder about some of his perceptions. I agree though that Grafton has an engaging voice, and is mostly likable, though his youth and somewhat ambiguous ethics at times will give readers pause.

Kat: Oh, yes. There were two things about Grafton that kept throwing me out of the story. One was that he was so passive — he accepted all the unfair things that were happening to him. Most young American men wouldn’t. I suppose we could explain this away by saying that Grafton actually wanted to stay in the area because he was writing a travel book and perhaps his experiences with their government would be good source material. Still, I thought he was too accepting of the rules of a fascist government.

Bill: I also had some concerns about the ease and sometimes glee with which Grafton entered into a working relationship with what is basically a police state. Perhaps Wolfe is saying something with that. And I agree with his passivity. And when you say “young American,” it reminded me how I thought he was at times a bit all over the map in terms of how his maturity level was portrayed. What’s the other thing that bothered you?

Kat: I’m glad you asked. The way Grafton thinks and talks about women seems old-fashionedly sexist for a young man who’s sophisticated enough to be a world traveler. At first I thought that was because this story was taking place a few decades ago, but then he mentioned his iPhone and I realized that the problem was the way Wolfe writes about women and sex. It sounds like how guys talked back when Wolfe was Grafton’s age — not how they talk now. Wolfe has the tone and lingo all wrong. Don’t you think?

Bill: Yes, I also had some difficulty with the portrayal of the women. Women seem to throw themselves at Grafton almost immediately, whether they are married or high-level agents of JAKA. I didn’t like the ease with which Grafton found his way into their beds. I admit, this was part of my reason I wondered about how Grafton portrayed things as narrator, as it just didn’t seem that Wolfe would portray women in this light.

Related to this is that, in typical Wolfe fashion, characters sometimes, often perhaps, have not only hidden motives but unexplained ones, which can leave the reader feeling a bit at sea. Wolfe also plays with linguistics as characters often speak in languages not their own or in pidgin sort of speech, making the reader strain to follow the thread of dialogue at times. Between the unreliable narrator, the dialogue hovering just on the edge of clarity, the shifting storylines (broad satire to haunted house story to private investigator mode to classic ghost story etc.), the at times enigmatic motivations, not to mention of course the several underlying mysteries that can’t be clearly and quickly explained (because then they wouldn’t be mysteries) — who tried to kill X, where did the severed hand come from, how can it move, who is the leader of the Satanist Cult, what do they want, whose side is Martya on, is the JAKA agent Naala on Grafton’s side, etc. — the reader is rarely if ever comfortable.

Kat: Yes, and though I enjoyed listening to Grafton’s story, through most of it I was acutely aware that I had no idea where it was all going. There didn’t seem to be a goal or a plan. Just a journey.

Bill: I know what you mean, though I liked that lack of comfort, the richly absurd tapestry being woven and then rewoven into a different picture. And the mishmash of supernatural elements — the hand, the Dracula-ish character (I’m going to go with the land across being at least a version of Transylvania), the haunted houses and ghosts and witches — and enjoyed for the most part (at times it seemed a little padded) the detective story. I found the Satanist cult-plot/resolution less engaging than the journey itself.

Kat: I liked the lack of comfort, too, but now that I’ve finished The Land Across, I’m still wondering what the point was? Basically, what is the purpose of this book? It didn’t seem to me that all those elements came together to form something meaningful and/or enjoyable in the end.

Bill: I have to agree that The Land Across isn’t compelling; I picked it up and put it down several times which is a clear sign the book hasn’t grabbed me, especially with a sub-300 page book like this one that I would normally polish off in a single sitting if I were really enjoying it.

Kat: I think I found it a little more readable than you did but, again, I feel certain that this was due to the excellent narration of the audiobook. Woodman’s pleasant and enthusiastic voice kept me listening. But I was hoping for some big reveal in the end to make it feel like it was worth so much of my time.

Bill: Hmm, I don’t think I can argue that. As mentioned at the start, like most Wolfe novels, this one probably deserves if not requires another reading In the end. I’d say that The Land Across mostly satisfies, is enjoyable enough, keeps the reader on their toes, is well and cleverly plotted, and makes deft use of the language/culture differences between the young American narrator and his host setting. At this point though, I’d call it a lesser Wolfe, but most would take that.
Kat: Absolutely true.
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