So yes, I guess you’ve figured out up front that this is a rave review. No big surprise: This is Joe Hill’s 4th novel, and it’s the 4th Joe Hill novel that I’ve loved.
I associate Joe Hill with scary-ass horror, but surprisingly, I wouldn’t call The Fireman a horror story at all. What it is, exactly, is a bit harder to put my finger on, but if I had to come up with a description, I’d say that The Fireman is a post-apocalyptic love story, with crazed dystopian power struggles and hypnotic religious leaders and dangerous cults. And that’s just scratching the surface.
Main character Harper Willowes is a nurse, of the best spit-spot Mary Poppins ilk. She entertains school children with her no-nonsense cheeriness, while helping the medicine go down with a spoonful of sugar. As the story opens, Harper is treating a young boy in the school nurse’s office when she sees a man burn to death out in the yard.
Why did the man burn to death? Because there’s a worldwide pandemic just starting to erupt. Originally seen as a third world problem, the spread of Draco incendia trychophyton — Dragonscale — quickly grabs first-world attention when it starts showing up in cities across the US and other so-called civilized countries.
Dragonscale victims first exhibit black streaks across their bodies, often quite beautiful and flecked with gold, before bursting into flames. Yes. Bursting into flames. Sufferers of Dragonscale are fated to self-combust after several weeks or months, and there’s nothing that can prevent it. Unfortunately, as people burst into flames, they tend to take buildings — schools, hospitals, neighborhoods, even the Space Needle — with them, and soon huge swathes of the country and the world are consumed by fire and ash.
Harper treats the infected while clothed in Ebola-level hazard-prevention attire, but still becomes infected herself, right after discovering she’s pregnant. And here’s where Harper’s husband goes a tad psycho, determined that they should kill themselves together rather than waiting for a fiery end. But Harper doesn’t want to, and Jakob’s insistence on their beautiful co-suicide turns ugly and violent, until Harper barely escapes with her life.
What she escapes to is a group of refugee people, all infected with Dragonscale, who live as a collective in hiding at an abandoned camp, where they learn to control the Dragonscale through their communal worship and connection. It’s cool, but quickly becomes a bit too group-think/hive-mind, as the kindly man overseeing the camp is succeeded by his more fanatical daughter.
Alrighty, I’ll stop with the synopsis. Either this is the type of story to absolutely grab you… or it’s just not for you.
I loved it. I think I’ve made that clear. Joe Hill sure can tell a story. The characters are so distinct and well-drawn. I could picture and hear them all as we went along. The Dragonscale pandemic is fascinating. I loved the origin of the disease and its explanation, the cause, the spreading mechanism, and the explanation of the way the group singing acts to control the combustion.
There’s a lot of humor in the writing itself and in the characters’ often quirky attitudes and sense of humor. I found it completely hilarious that Joe Hill kept throwing in little mentions of all the dead celebrities throughout the book. Imagine being one of them and finding out that you’d been fictionally killed off by a horrible infection! For example…
They were showing footage from last night’s Celtic game, just like nothing was happening. Isaiah Thomas rose up on his toes, fell backward, and let go of the basketball, hit a shot from nearly half court. They didn’t know it then, but by the end of the following week, the basketball season would be over. Come summer, most of the Celtics would be dead, by incineration or suicide.
Then Glenn Beck burned to death on his Internet program, right in front of his chalkboard, burned so hot his glasses fused to his face, and after that most of the news was less about who did it and more about how not to catch it.
The other guns went off, all together, firecrackers on a July night. Muzzles flashed, like paparazzi snapping shots of George Clooney as he climbed out of his limousine. Although George Clooney was dead, had burned to death while on a humanitarian aid mission to New York City.
There are more, but I won’t spoil the surprise (can I even call it fun?) of stumbling across these morbid pop cultural references. There’s even a little throw-away reference to Christmas-land — and that name alone should strike fear into the hearts of anyone who read Hill’s previous novel, NOS4A2.
The Fireman has several parts, focusing first on the end of the world as we know it via the deadly Dragonscale and its fires, then life at the camp and the new society that forms there, and then again in a quest for peace and refuge. Throughout, there are scenes of personal connection, touching and deeply felt, as well as intense and brutal action sequences that are insanely pulse-pounding.
This is a long book, but it flies by. I loved the characters, especially Nurse Harper and the titular Fireman, but also the orphaned children and the loving older woman who become part of Harper’s circle of protection, her new-found family.
The ending is stunning and satisfying, and yet I want more! So far, Joe Hill hasn’t shown a tendency to repeat himself or revisit worlds from earlier books, but damn, I wish there were more to this story. I want to know what happens next!
If you enjoy suspense, destruction, unusual and strong characters, and yes, even love stories, The Fireman is absolutely worth checking out.
Have you read The Fireman? Or have I convinced you to give it a try? I’d love to hear what you think!
Title: The Fireman
Author: Joe Hill
Publisher: William Morrow
Publication date: May 17, 2016
Length: 768 pages