This piece originally appeared in the Washington Independent Review of Books:
When Scottish teenager Dylan boards a train from Glasgow to Aberdeen to meet her estranged father for the first time in years she is certain that the momentous trip will change everything. What she won’t realize until later is that instead of meeting her father she will never complete her journey–dying when her train crashes.
Except Dylan wakes up inside her train car, alone and in the dark after the crash, where “Her imagination filled in the blanks, packing the route through the carriage with upturned seats, luggage, broken glass from the windows, and squishy, slick things that were solidifying in her mind’s eye into limbs and torsos.” Outside of the wreckage there is no sign of disaster recovery; all Dylan sees is a solitary, sandy-haired teenage boy watching her.
It’s clear that something is different about this cobalt eyed boy who does not “stand or even smile when he [sees] her looking at him” and “just continue[s] to stare.” The only two people in an isolated area, Dylan reluctantly agrees to follow Tristan across the unwelcoming landscape away from the wreckage. Along the way Dylan begins to realize that she is not trekking across the Scottish highlands with a startlingly attractive teenage boy–the kind who always “made her nervous” because “they seemed so cool and confident, and she always ended up getting tongue-tied and feeling like a total freak.”
Dylan is dead, traveling through the aptly named wasteland alongside Tristan, her personal ferryman.
As a ferryman Tristan “guide[s] souls across the wasteland and protect[s] them from the demons” keen to devour new and pure souls like Dylan’s. Along the way he also “break[s] the truth to them, then deliver[s] them to wherever they’re going.” Tristan has shepherded more souls than he can count across the wasteland, a task that has become increasingly transactional as his journeys blend together into goodbyes. “Each soul that waved goodbye at the end of the journey had taken a small piece of him with them, torn off a tiny piece of his heart. After a while, he had hardened.” As he reminds Dylan, everyone has to cross the wasteland which he describes as “Their own personal wilderness. It’s a place to discover the truth that you have died and come to terms with it.”
The wasteland is not a place to make friends or fall in love. But as they learn more about each other, and themselves, Dylan and Tristan realize they are not prepared to admit that reaching the end of their path will also mean their inevitable separation as Dylan goes where Tristan cannot follow in Ferryman (2021) by Claire McFall.
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First published in the UK in 2013 and nominated for the 2014 Carnegie Medal, McFall’s acclaimed debut novel Ferryman has made its way to the US with the rest of the trilogy, Trespassers and Outcasts, slated to follow. A movie adaptation is also in the works. All characters are cued as white in this series with world building loosely inspired by the ancient Greek myth of Charon.
With a heavy focus on the drudgery of walking through the wasteland, McFall is slow to unpack Dylan and Tristan’s mutual attraction although both characters find something they lack in the other.
In spite of himself Tristan appreciates Dylan’s unique perspective and unexpected kindnesses to him when “Most souls, when they discovered what had happened to them, were too absorbed in their own sorrow and self-pity to show much interest in this road between the real world and the end” much less in the ferryman guiding them through it. After countless years changing himself to appear to “look appealing” and trustworthy to each of his souls, Tristan is shocked to have the space to define himself as more than his role as a ferryman and whatever the souls in his charge choose to project onto him.
Dylan, meanwhile, is used to feeling the limits of her agency as a teenage girl who is constantly concerned with doing and saying the right thing. “She was the shy, serious student. Quiet, diligent, but not particularly clever. All of her successes had to be earned through hard work, which was easy when you had no friends.” But in Tristan Dylan finally finds the appreciation she had previously lacked with Tristan who sees Dylan as “a soul worth protecting. A soul worth caring about. A soul that he wanted to give a piece of himself to.”
Although Tristan initially acknowledges some of the unequal power dynamics at play between himself–an ageless, supernatural being–and Dylan–a seemingly ordinary girl despite the high caliber of her soul–this aspect of the plot is never fully explored. Tristan’s initial hesitation since “as her protector, he would be taking advantage of her vulnerability if he acted on his feelings” shifts quickly to a heartfelt confession and both struggling with their looming separation.
With their slog through the wasteland and unspoken longing taking up much of the plot, Ferryman is slow to build to its dramatic conclusion. The novel’s final act offers tantalizing glimpses of world building surrounding what comes beyond the wasteland and what it will mean for both Dylan and Tristan. Readers new to this series will be excited to see these aspects more fully explored in later installments.
Possible Pairings: Ice by Sarah Beth Durst, Twilight by Stephenie Meyer, You Are the Everything by Karen Rivers, Shiver by Maggie Stiefvater, A Well-Timed Enchantment by Vivian Vande Velde