Book Review: The Fireman by Joe Hill
A review copy was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 4 of 5 stars
Genre: Horror, Science Fiction
Series: Stand Alone
Publisher: William Morrow (May 17, 2016)
Length: 768 pages
A couple years ago I picked up NOS4R2. It was the first novel I’ve ever read by Joe Hill, and I enjoyed it so much afterwards that I told myself it certainly wasn’t going to be the last. And see, I’m one to hold to promises. When I found out about The Fireman, it went straight onto my reading list.
I’ll admit though, I didn’t know what to expect at first. I went into the book completely blind on purpose, having read no reviews and not even the full description. I wanted to be completely surprised, the way I was with NOS4R2, which ended up being a supernatural horror that cleverly blurred the lines between our world of reality and imagination. I think part of me believed The Fireman would be similar, but in fact, the book turned out to be less of a horror novel and more like a science fiction dystopian suspense-thriller, the kind that usually goes hand-in-hand with an impending apocalypse.
This time, it’s a pandemic caused by a deadly infection called Draco Incendia Trychophyton, though most folks know it by its more common name, Dragonscale—so called because of the swirls of black and gold that appear on the skin of its victims. But the most interesting thing about this plague is the way it behaves, first infecting its host with its spores, incubating in the body for some amount of time before causing them to burst into flames. What follows is spontaneous combustion by the millions, with cities rapidly being consumed by blazing infernos. There is no cure, and all measures to contain Dragonscale have failed. People are afraid, both the healthy and the sick. In a very short time, the world has become a ruin.
In the midst of all this is our protagonist Harper Grayson, a former school nurse who volunteers to help treat patients with Dragonscale after the hospitals become overcrowded and short-staffed. Despite adhering to the most stringent of anti-infection procedures however, Harper wakes up one day to the telltale black and gold streaks on her skin. And what’s even more troubling, this occurs just a few short weeks after she discovered she was pregnant. Believing himself to be infected as well, Harper’s husband Jakob snaps and blames her for everything, going as far as to attempt to kill her, thus forcing her to go on the run. Out in the world though, it is a dangerous place, with vigilantes gunning down those with Dragonscale in broad daylight with no fear of reprisal. Harper ends up being rescued by a mysterious stranger known as The Fireman, who brings her to a secret community of Dragonscale sufferers who appear to have learned how to keep their fiery deaths at bay. Harper finds safety with this group for a while, but of course the peace does not last.
While I don’t typically like making comparisons between books in my reviews, I feel like I have to make an exception here. And anyway, it’s not like doing so automatically means any negative connotations. In fact, for this particular case, I can’t think of a better way to pay this book a compliment. For you see, The Fireman totally reminded me of The Stand by Stephen King. You’ve got a pregnant young woman. A deaf character named Nick. A kindly old leader called Father Tom in the former, and a Mother Abigail in the latter. And oh yeah, mustn’t forget there’s also that whole end of the world thing, with the human race being ravaged by a killer plague. Later, I learned from a Wired article that these similarities and more were something Joe Hill realized himself, partway into writing his novel. Instead of running away from the parallels though, he decided to embrace them, writing what he calls his own fiery, gasoline-soaked version of his dad’s classic. When I read that, I actually thought it was kind of…well, sweet.
Granted, I’m sure there were other influences, as there are quite a few dystopian tropes on display here. A commune led by a tyrannical ideologue who just wants to see people yield and conform. Brainwashed followers to help them do it. Dissenters told to sit down and shut up, fall in line or else. The injustice of watching bad guys get the upper hand on good people. The mass hysteria and violence that occurs when you dehumanization what you fear. The ultimate quest by the characters for their promised land, a safe haven. All these themes are here, and so are the emotions they instill. Ergo I can’t help but think The Fireman feels like a story I’ve seen before, or that these characters (or their archetypes) are those I’ve met before in the past.
But you know what? That’s okay. There are plenty of dystopians out there, tales that serve to rip away civilization’s thin veneer, but this is Joe Hill and he does it better than most. I really liked the idea of Dragonscale, a very unique and very frightening plague in how it spreads, infects, and kills. We’d all like to think we would do the right thing in the face of such horror, but the author mercilessly bares the truth on such naivete. Would you help a stranger in need, if it meant risking the life of your own child? Could you live with yourself for turning away someone sick and dying, even if you knew that single act of kindness towards one individual might mean the death of thousands down the road? The Fireman makes you confront these tough questions, and yes, they should make you feel uncomfortable. I pray the world never finds itself in such dire straits, because I think Joe Hill has it right: things would get very ugly.
Honestly, my only real criticism is that I think this book could have benefited from some tighter writing, maybe shave a bunch of pages off of this hulking 700+ page monster. While it never bored me, there were still plenty of sections in the middle that consisted of nothing but talk, adding little to the story or to the characters. Any extra words would have been better served developing the main protagonist. Harper is a strong and kind-hearted person, but I also felt she had the least depth of the entire cast. All the major actions I can think of were undertaken by other characters, and her overall personality remained relatively static and bland, much of it summed up with Mary Poppins, Harry Potter, or Narnia allusions (which grated on my nerves after a while).
I also didn’t think there was anything too innovative or original about the plot, and the writing was so unsubtle I could spot all the big “twists” coming a mile away. I don’t want to give the impression that I didn’t enjoy this book though, because all in all it was great. However, if you’re no stranger to dystopian novels, it might just give you a sense of déjà vu. The story felt almost restrained, with none of the weird developments and mind-bending surprises I found in NOS4R2. Compared to that one, The Fireman was practically a calm, quiet stroll through the park.
When it comes to the two Joe Hill novels I’ve read so far though, each of them has its strengths in very different areas. While The Fireman is more grounded in well-established themes and ideas, I also enjoyed it for what it was, and I certainly appreciated it for its entertainment value. Not once did my enthusiasm flag even as we treaded familiar ground, thanks to the fascinating nature of the premise and the high levels of suspense kept the pages turning. I had a good time with this one, and would highly recommend.