On occasion, a book takes an age-old concept and manages to put a fascinating, original spin on it. The Ferryman Institute is such a book, dealing with the concept of what happens after we die and “cross over.” Colin Gigl has created a world of Ferrymen, whose sole job it is to ensure that the souls of the recently departed cross over into whatever their particular afterlife looks like. In a few pages, Gigl manages to create a robust, fascinating world, complete with its own mythology and rules. Which is why it’s disappointing that it serves as background to a predictable plot.
The story focuses on Charlie Dawson, one of the titular Ferrymen from the Ferryman Institute. For the past 200 years, he has has been ferrying souls of the recently departed to their afterlives, and he is renowned as being one of the only Ferrymen to have never lost a soul. In Gigl’s world, when souls refuse to cross over, they become wandering spirits, slowly losing all form of self and memory and instead degenerating into a wisp of angry energy. It’s a fascinating concept which is woefully unexplored through the narrative, but more on that, later.
Charlie is not only tired of his job, he has been for quite some time. In fact, it’s implied early on that Charlie has never enjoyed his immortality or his duty. He quickly turns from being an interesting character to being a well-trod version of the smart aleck rebel, always testing the rules and limitations of his position. This could, potentially, be intriguing if he didn’t feel like such a stereotype. Everything he says is an attempt at a “witty” one-liner, and while some of them work, most fall flat.
After 200 years, Charlie is finally offered a choice to save a person: the depressed, down-on-her-luck Alice Spiegel, who serves as a strange manic-pixie dream girl stereotype. Strange because she never really leaves the depressed side of the manic character, yet she is constantly bandying about one-liners with Charlie. So very much of their dialog seems an attempt to out-clever one another, and if that sounds tiresome, it totally is. But not nearly as tiresome as Alice’s constant moping and self-loathing. Her character throws herself around the room more than Wolverine (yes, from X-men), meaning she quickly crosses over from sympathetic to whiny.
Once Charlie and Alice pair up, the story changes from something unique and interesting, and descends into a weird combination of a supernatural romance and a buddy action story. The problem here is that Gigl never seems to commit to one genre or the other. The story might have been better had it leaned into either one, but instead we’re left with a romance that is never fully romantic, and an action story that never reaches a true peak, nor does it ever feel like the stakes are truly high or dangerous.
Charlie himself cannot be killed. As the mustache-twirling antagonist, Javrouche, ever dogs Charlie, the greatest thing he can punish him with is a form of torturous purgatory. While that doesn’t sound like much fun, it’s also not much of a dire strait for him, either. Unfortunately, while Alice can be killed, considering she starts the story attempting to commit suicide, this never feels like much of a consequence, either. In fact, rather early on, it might be a welcome gift from the author.
As an antagonist, Javrouche is a comical caricature. His evilness oozes off him from his initial reveal, and when his tragic backstory unfolds, it’s not only predictable, it’s groan-worthy. He’s one step removed from Snidely Whiplash, which does him no favors. His most egregious sin, though, is that he reveals plot twists and turns — unknowingly — far too early. The central “mystery” (I’m not sure it’s fair to call it a mystery, but that’s the closest, applicable terminology) is easily unraveled, at the midway point in the novel, entirely through Javrouche’s dialog. It plays on our knowledge of established tropes and pitfalls, making him both Charlie’s and the reader’s worst enemy. He achieves spoiler, boss level.
Having said all of that, you might be surprised when I say the book isn’t all bad. Despite one character’s true identity being woefully predictable early on, that character remains a charming bright spot throughout the narrative. Some of the dialog is, on occasion, rather clever and funny, and the premise does carry the weaker spots through very nicely. The action scenes, while somewhat trite, are also capably executed. A chase might not have any real sense of consequence, but the chase itself is quite competent.
On one hand, I want to admonish Gigl for never fully fleshing out or exploring some of his world’s mythos — namely the ghost mechanic — but on the other, it’s clear he knows his limitations. I’ve read so many books that are ultimately weighed down by, and unnecessarily burdened by, over-explanation. A concept is only as good as its explanation, and Gigl allows the reader to infer a lot of the explanation on their own, which is both good and bad. In some respects, it’s akin to Looper’s time travel explanation, in which Bruce Willis essentially tells the audience, “Don’t worry about it, just go with it.” Much of Gigl’s world seems to carry this and while it’s a little disappointing, it also kind of works.
The Ferryman Institute isn’t a bad book, it’s just very mediocre, which is a shame given its outstanding premise. What could have been an enjoyable trip through post-death life devolves into a supernatural action/romance, plagued by poor dialog and uninteresting characters.