The Ferryman Institute by Colin Gigl, published by Gallery Books, is a delight to read. The cover and the blurb drew me in while I was browsing books, so I was expecting something interesting. It was Colin Gigl’s excellent plot, world building and characterisation that kept me reading, though. This book is fantastic. It is thoughtful, complex, frustrating and often hilarious. Gigl delivers on every promise the jacket blurb offers, but he enhances it, elevates it, and ascends the book with his strategic use of emotional highs and lows and an enviable control of conflict. This book, suffused with death, becomes more about the gift that life is; something that really resonated with me.
The blurb reads:
Ferryman Charlie Dawson saves dead people—somebody has to convince them to move on to the afterlife, after all. Having never failed a single assignment, he’s acquired a reputation for success that’s as legendary as it is unwanted. It turns out that serving as a Ferryman is causing Charlie to slowly lose his mind.
Deemed too valuable by the Ferryman Institute to be let go and too stubborn to just give up in his own right, Charlie’s pretty much abandoned all hope of escaping his grim existence. Or he had, anyway, until he saved Alice Spiegel. To be fair, Charlie never planned on stopping Alice from taking her own life—that sort of thing is strictly forbidden by the Institute—but he never planned on the President secretly giving him the choice to, either. Charlie’s not quite sure what to make of it, but Alice is alive, and it’s the first time he’s felt right in more than two hundred years.
When word of the incident reaches Inspector Javrouche, the Ferryman Institute’s resident internal affairs liaison, Charlie finds he’s in a world of trouble. But Charlie’s not about to lose the only living, breathing person he’s ever saved without a fight. He’s ready to protect her from Javrouche and save Alice from herself, and he’s willing to put the entire continued existence of mankind at risk to do it.
Charlie Dawson is a victim of his own virtues. His legendary status within the Ferryman Institute is a prison he has constructed around himself with his own competence. His distaste for his work, and his desire to escape it, is only overshadowed by his desire and self-imposed obligation to assist the passing of the dead, not forsake them. He is exactly the sort of literary figure I like the most – the kind you find exasperating, frustrating but undeniably likable. He is complex, flawed, contradictory and funny; in other words, he is human. That is good writing. Alice Spiegel, the second main, is just like Charlie, albeit in her own ways. She is broken, lost and suicidal, but Charlie’s emergence in her life is transformative. I really enjoyed the interplay between them and the tangible effect they had on their respective development and world-view.
The realism and immersive nature of the characters is only really possible through Gigl’s command of emotional development, and the well executed contrast of highs and lows throughout. I found the initial stages of the book slow, but they were necessary to construct the foundation that supports the latter half of the book, which I enjoyed so much more. The second half rewards the reader for their investment and moves at a gratifying pace. With that pace comes the fulfilment and resolution of several loose ends Colin Gigl leaves hanging throughout. I was quickly invested in Charlie and Alice. The dynamic that forms between them and their development captured me. Once that happened I was sold.
The intentions of the cast of characters are of paramount importance in this book. Rather than being categorically black and white, the characters motivations and choices are the defining characteristics of how they are held in the mind of the reader. That being said, they are all guilty of making poor choices. They make decisions that negatively and harrowingly impact others; this fosters an organic and natural complexity. One particular character, Inspector Javrouche, who is villainous and hateful, has a backstory that is heartbreaking. It moulded him into who he is now and that is interesting. The characters choices matter and greatly contribute to their development. This holds true for Charlie and Alice too. Choice is of significant importance in a world where there appears to be very little room for it.
Following that, the concept of the Ferryman Institute itself is thoroughly compelling. I loved the whole idea of it. It had a serious Ministry of Magic vibe to it that I found familiar and comforting but also unique enough to feel fresh. There are a lot of mysteries surrounding the upper echelons of the Institute that I think would greatly benefit from further exploration. It’s incredibly rich in conception and verdant ground for stories. I won’t spoil anything about what is shared in the book but there are some fantastic moments that are simply revelations surrounding the institute itself. These revelations are page-turners in their own right. There is a whole mysterious vista, an unexplored frontier and a mythology that Gigl has constructed surrounding the institute and it’s position in the universe that is rife with potential and intrigue.
The Ferryman Institute surprised me. I didn’t expect its impact or its significance. It is deep, thoughtful, reflective, compellingly conceived and hilarious. This book is funny. It jarred me, to start with, because I hadn’t realised how long it’s been since I’ve read a book that was funny, let alone one that nailed the humour. That is a triumph, when you consider the primary premise of the book surrounds a man, an immortal, who ferries the souls of the dead into the afterlife. It deals with death, depression, grief and suicide, but it is also absurdly funny and light. It’s important to note here that the humour doesn’t cheapen the significance or the books treatment of these themes; if anything it serves to legitimise them with a realistic approach to life and grief and the morass of depression. I really don’t read many funny books. If I do read more, though, I want them to be like this: dark but hopeful, sarcastic and caustic, but also genuine and warm. The book will be on shelves when this review is available to read. If you see it please give it a try. I think you’ll love it. Colin Gigl deserves every accolade he gets for this one. It’s a great book.
I received a review copy of this novel via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.