Reviewing novels is always kind of tricky. You want to fill the reader in on what the story is about but at the same time you don’t want to spoil any surprises, large or small. Let me start, though, by saying that I’m a huge fan of Joe Hill. He’s a tremendously talented writer, the kind of author you read and enjoy, but then you get kind of pissed because you’re just not quite that good yourself. At least, not yet.
As regulars here know, and new visitors could probably suss out fairly quickly, I’m also a big fan of post-apocalyptic fiction. Whether we’re talking war, natural disasters, or man-made calamities, I’m interested in how people fare in the aftermath. So, when I heard Joe Hill was doing a post-apocalyptic novel, it caught my attention.
In THE FIREMAN, the disaster du jour is a pandemic, but unlike any we’ve seen before. Draco incendia trychophyton, often referred to as Dragonscale, is a communicable disease that can and usually does set people on fire. It first manifests as a gold and black marking, not unlike a tattoo, on the body. The location and shape are different for everyone. What matters is that once you’ve been infected, you’re likely going to go up in flames sooner or later. There is no known cure and entire cities have been destroyed by the infected. It has been found that when the infected are in groups and one of them goes up, it causes a chain reaction among them all. Yeah, AA meetings were never like this, I reckon.
Harper Grayson is a nurse in her 20s. Dragonscale is spreading nonstop and she finds herself spending more and more time at the hospital, trying to provide some measure of care for the infected. Harper’s husband, Jakob, seems a decent enough bloke until he becomes convinced that Harper has infected the two of them with Dragonscale. She barely escapes with her life…and with the baby growing inside of her.
One of the patients Harper had treated while at the hospital was a child brought in by the titular Fireman. He [Fireman] is infected but has been working tirelessly to help other folks, so it seems. As it turns out, the Fireman has managed to do something seemingly no one else has – control the Dragonscale and master the flame.
As one might imagine, due to the inherent danger they bring to the table, the infected aren’t exactly welcomed with open arms by the rest of society. In fact, more and more often there are reports of infected people being hunted down and killed by vigilante groups. One of the loudest proponents of these groups is a talk radio host who goes by the moniker The Marlboro Man. I’ll admit I was a little disappointed in this naming choice, given that one of my favorite guilty pleasure movies is Harley Davidson & the Marlboro Man.
As a result of the hatred and abuse, hidden colonies of infected crop up and it is to one of these locations Harper ends up going, taken there by the Fireman. There, Harper learns that the Fireman isn’t the only one who has the Dragonscale infection under control. It is also at this camp, for lack of a better term, that we’re introduced to a whole litany of characters. I’ll be honest in that I felt like I had to keep a scorecard nearby as I went along so I could keep track of who’s who.
As it turns out, the Dragonscale infection reacts to the person’s emotional state. The more angry or anxious they get, the more their temperature rises, both figuratively and literally. The community manages to counteract this tendency by having daily singalongs.
Now, here’s the thing, dear readers. If you’re a regular here, you know we talk a fair amount about survival communities and what not. While group singing isn’t a bad idea as a way to pass the time and keep spirits up, getting to the point where it is a daily activity, so much so that if you miss a session people start to look crossways at you, that’s a sign that the community isn’t healthy.
This is also where I felt THE FIREMAN worked well on two levels. First, obviously, an engaging novel. Second, though, is that this part of the story serves as an excellent illustration of how a group of people, even one with nothing but good intentions, can slip sideways rather quickly. It doesn’t take much before the leader of the band, so to speak, starts to sing a slightly different tune.
Through it all, Harper is not just caring for those around her but for the life growing inside her ever-expanding belly. She’s rather certain the baby won’t be born infected, based on some research she’d done. But, what will happen with the baby? Who will take care of it if she has to give it up so it remains uninfected?
Harper and the Fireman might be the heroes of the story but neither of them are as pure as the driven snow. That’s one of the story’s strengths. The characters are first and foremost human. They come across as real. They act and react in ways that seem normal and expected. When the Fireman first realizes the extent of his abilities, there’s no “With great power comes great responsibility” epiphany. He feels and acts like a guy who’s been in a bar band for years and now has just landed the mother of all recording deals, complete with a tour bus filled with groupies and a never-ending supply of booze.
For her part, Harper quotes Mary Poppins from time to time but isn’t afraid to let loose with the cussing as the situation warrants. And as the story progresses, she finds this necessary more and more often. On top of that, she’s keeping secrets and isn’t sure who she can really trust.
Throughout THE FIREMAN, there are dozens of references to pop culture, from the fates of celebrities like George Clooney to the final plan of finding a safe haven with original MTV VJ Martha Quinn on an island off the coast of Maine. Hill also brings the funny from time to time, with several truly laugh-out-loud one-liners. Being able to elicit both laughter and tears from a reader through the course of a book shows talent and Hill has this in spades.
There’s a lot going on in THE FIREMAN. That stands to reason, given that the book tops out at 770 pages or so. While the ending is a little…soft…it is satisfying. This isn’t a typical post-apocalyptic novel, either. While there’s some detail here and there about how society has fared with the spread of the Dragonscale, most of the story concentrates on the characters. That’s not a bad thing but by the end of the book I was wanting to hear more about the world at large. That shouldn’t be surprising, given my background. I wanted to know how people were surviving. Was anyone still actually going to work? Were stores still operating? What were people eating or doing for water? I mean, I could surmise my own answers to those questions but I’d have loved to hear how it played out in the author’s head. [Joe, if you read this, I’m available to consult on such matters ;)]