I received this book free from Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.
The Fireman: A Novel by Joe Hill
Published by William Morrow on May 17th 2016
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Also by this author: NOS4A2, Twittering from the Circus of the Dead, Strange Weather
From the award-winning, New York Times bestselling author of NOS4A2 and Heart-Shaped Box comes a chilling novel about a worldwide pandemic of spontaneous combustion that threatens to reduce civilization to ashes and a band of improbable heroes who battle to save it, led by one powerful and enigmatic man known as the Fireman.
The fireman is coming. Stay cool.
No one knows exactly when it began or where it originated. A terrifying new plague is spreading like wildfire across the country, striking cities one by one: Boston, Detroit, Seattle. The doctors call it Draco Incendia Trychophyton. To everyone else it’s Dragonscale, a highly contagious, deadly spore that marks its hosts with beautiful black and gold marks across their bodies—before causing them to burst into flames. Millions are infected; blazes erupt everywhere. There is no antidote. No one is safe.
Harper Grayson, a compassionate, dedicated nurse as pragmatic as Mary Poppins, treated hundreds of infected patients before her hospital burned to the ground. Now she’s discovered the telltale gold-flecked marks on her skin. When the outbreak first began, she and her husband, Jakob, had made a pact: they would take matters into their own hands if they became infected. To Jakob’s dismay, Harper wants to live—at least until the fetus she is carrying comes to term. At the hospital, she witnessed infected mothers give birth to healthy babies and believes hers will be fine too. . . if she can live long enough to deliver the child.
Convinced that his do-gooding wife has made him sick, Jakob becomes unhinged, and eventually abandons her as their placid New England community collapses in terror. The chaos gives rise to ruthless Cremation Squads—armed, self-appointed posses roaming the streets and woods to exterminate those who they believe carry the spore. But Harper isn’t as alone as she fears: a mysterious and compelling stranger she briefly met at the hospital, a man in a dirty yellow fire fighter’s jacket, carrying a hooked iron bar, straddles the abyss between insanity and death. Known as The Fireman, he strolls the ruins of New Hampshire, a madman afflicted with Dragonscale who has learned to control the fire within himself, using it as a shield to protect the hunted . . . and as a weapon to avenge the wronged.
In the desperate season to come, as the world burns out of control, Harper must learn the Fireman’s secrets before her life—and that of her unborn child—goes up in smoke.
“There’s something horribly unfair about dying in the middle of a good story, before you have a chance to see how it all comes out. Of course, I suppose everyone ALWAYS dies in the middle of a good story, in a sense. Your own story. Or the story of your grandchildren. Death is a raw deal for narrative junkies.”
In my opinion, post-apocalyptic fiction could easily be considered a sub-genre of horror so it only makes sense for Joe Hill to be tackling it. In Hill’s version of the apocalypse, the world has drastically changed after a spore begins spreading that is quite literally burning everything (and everyone) to the ground. It’s known as Draco Incendia Trychophyton, or more commonly known as Dragonscale. The infected show signs on their skin in black and gold dragon scales which could be considered beautiful were it not for the fact it causes people, and those in close proximity, to spontaneously combust. Harper Grayson is a school nurse who begins volunteering at the local hospital at least until it too burns down. She returns home to her husband, Jakob, only to discover shortly after that she’s pregnant. Harper is intent on keeping the baby, convinced she’d be able to give birth to a healthy child, but Jakob disagrees and becomes exceedingly violent. Harper is forced to find a new safe place to see this pregnancy through which ends in a chance meeting with The Fireman, a man who straddles the line between hero and villain.
“Do you spend a lot of nights keeping the fire department in hysterics with creative acts of arson?”
“Everyone needs a hobby,” he said.
This was an immense and time-consuming book, however, if you’ve read a Joe Hill book before you know that the man can’t seem to write a bad book. While this one was not nearly my favorite (that award goes to Heart Shaped Box, always) it’s always fascinating to see a well-loved author tackle a new genre and watch the world he created unfold. He also once again proves his talents for writing fantastic female characters. Merrin Williams in Horns, Victoria McQueen in NOS4A2, and now Harper Grayson in The Fireman. Where he really excelled though was with his created contagion, Dragonscale, and how it was built up and developed far more than most end of world diseases I’ve read about. Typically, stories such as these have a failure of sufficiently developing what led to the downfall of civilization and instead focuses on the world after instead. I could easily compare the time spent explaining and detailing Dragonscale (including the origins and scientific explanations) to how flawlessly Mira Grant handled Kellis-Amberlee in her Newsflesh trilogy.
‘Her Dragonscale pulsed with a disagreeable warmth, in a way that made her think of someone breathing on coals.’
Camp Wyndham ends up being Harper’s “safe” place for her to continue her pregnancy but once she arrives there the pacing of the book seemed to suffer. Camp drama, strange religious aspects that are pretty standard for any end of world story, and various other plot lines were ongoing but I felt that much of it was often superfluous and ultimately never amounted to much when you consider how much time was spent exploring said plots. I applaud his effort for writing such a tome, but alas, I feel it could have been trimmed down just a bit. There was also the requisite yet under-developed bad guy that I’ve already mentioned: Jakob. To summarize, Jakob was a big bag of dicks.
“I’ve never once met a woman who had any true intellectual rigor. There’s a reason things like Facebook and airplanes and all the other great inventions of our time were made by men.”
And that’s just one example. Basically, he went a little psycho after he discovered Harper had contracted Dragonscale. They had touched one another in recent days so he became a hypochondriac, convinced that she had also infected him and sentenced him to his death. I felt that there wasn’t enough basis for him as a villain and wanted a bit more backstory to find out how his perverse mind worked, even though I doubt it would have been an enjoyable experience.
Hill created a most enticing world full of love, bravery, and adventure in The Fireman. He also set the tone for possible future installments. I’ll admit, I did groan a bit because that’s just what this world needs more of: series. But this is Joe Hill, and I can’t not be curious.