The Dead-Tossed Waves, Carrie Ryan ’00

Post-apocalyptic settings have long been a popular stage for young adult fiction. After all, there’s nothing like a world in ruins to encapsulate the sense of isolation of a brooding teenager or to symbolize how every crisis and decision seems to be the end of the world. Thirty years ago, the apocalypse of choice was usually a nuclear war. In the dark days late in the Cold War, the setting had the advantage of a seeming inevitability, but created numerous plotting problems. Today, the leading holocaust is more often supernatural.

In The Dead-Tossed Waves, the second novel penned by English major Carrie Ryan ’00, the cause of devastation is a plague of zombies, and while seemingly more fantastic than inevitable (even to Max Brooks fans), zombies have the advantage of being enemies you can sink an ax into. (From a less-literary perspective, zombies may also be advantageous in widening the readers – even if the largest part of the audience for The Dead-Tossed Waves is female, at least there’s blood, gore, and suspense for the boys assigned this as a lighter piece of homework).

As in her prior novel, generations have passed since mankind was overrun by the “Infected,” and attempts to retake the world from the undead have failed. Small pockets of humanity hang in the balance against the zombie hordes. And a teenage heroine fights the personal demons of every teenager even as she and her companions battle to defeat their deadly foes.

In The Dead-Tossed Waves, Ryan moves a generation ahead in her dystopia, and again shepherds a sympathetic character through romance and betrayal. Gabry (short for Gabrielle), her heroine, is convincingly drawn and appealing. Many young-adult novels stumble in their appeal by providing a (realistically) self-absorbed hero that the reader is ready to root against due to an overdose of angst; Ryan neatly avoids this difficult trap.

Ryan’s thematic talents are also apparent. She blends her frighteningly desolate world with a series of hopeful sparks — glimpses of our world of the past; a lighthouse stubbornly maintained into the present. And she provides a wonderful extended metaphor as Gabry flees down a narrow, one-way path, punctuated with gates and separated from the zombified forest on either side by no more than a fence. The journey feels familiar, even in our world.

For the romance, Gabry finds herself pulled in two directions by two outsider companions. In a Twilight-esque echo, Catcher is Infected – but not as dangerous and most, while Elias’s humanity may also be in question. The mostly chaste romance is rendered more realistic by its setting. Alas, the thinly-characterized male partsare one weak spot in The Dead-Tossed Waves: we’re not likely to see “Team Catcher” or “Team Elias” as a cult cause anytime soon.

Aside from Harry Potter, it’s been a long time since I picked up a book geared at young adults, and on my own, I’d question my fitness to review its appeal. Fortunately, the book was brought to my attention by a young Ryan fan, whose family-wide proselytization brought the author’s Williams education to the attention of one of my colleagues. She reports reading it cover-to-cover three times in two weeks and her aunt confirms that she talked about nothing else nonstop. Her enthusiasm has saved me the  trouble of assembling a focus group. At least until Ryan’s next novel comes my way.

Author’s Note: This post is one of a periodic series of book reviews looking at works by Ephs, about Ephs, or otherwise related to Eph Planet. Forthcoming reviews include “The Fourth Star” by Greg Jaffe ’91 and “Dominion of Memories” by Prof. Susan Dunn.

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