The Fireman by Joe Hill
Publisher: Gollancz, 2016
My Rating: 4.5/5
Synopsis: The doctors call it Draco Incendia Trychophyton. But everyone knows it as Dragonscale, an incurable spore that kills its host through spontaneous combustion. A million people have it. There’s a fire on every street corner; hospitals have become funeral pyres. Civilization is disappearing fast into the smoke.
Sunny, unflappable Harper Grayson is newly pregnant when she comes up marked and sure to burn. But her baby might be born uninfected… if she can live long enough to deliver.
Abandoned by her increasingly unhinged husband, hunted by the Cremation Squads, Harper hears a fantastic rumour: the story of The Fireman. He strolls the ruins of New Hampshire, a madman afflicted with Dragonscale who may have learned to control the flames.
In the desperate season to come, Harper will take any risk to find him and learn his secrets – before what’s left of the world goes up in smoke.
I’d heard a lot of good things about this book and, being a fan of apocalyptic fiction, I was over the moon to find a signed copy in Waterstones. And I have to say, this novel didn’t disappoint.
However, it wasn’t what I expected. The blurb makes it sound like Harper is going to have to travel a dangerous, burning America in search of the mysterious Fireman, when in fact that’s not it at all. This novel goes in a completely different direction to the usual apocalyptic fiction, whereby the hero must travel the country in search of a cure or a lost loved one. The blurb really doesn’t even hint at the depth of this novel and the myriad of sub-plots. There are an abundance of characters as well and this makes for a satisfyingly complicated read. So, when I say it wasn’t what I expected, that certainly doesn’t mean I didn’t like it.
I say ‘satisfyingly complicated’ because I was never confused. The writing style is excellent and reminded me a little of Justin Cronin’s The Passage series (which is brilliant, by the way, and if you haven’t read it go start now!). Just like that series, The Fireman is a pretty hefty book. I think it could have been a little shorter. Some scenes were quite long when they could have been cut down, and others were too short, with one scene especially springing to mind for being too short and maybe a little anticlimactic, almost a slight cop-out. To give you a hint (no spoilers), we spend much of the time in a particular setting and so may of the sub-plots and characters are weaved about this place, and then something happens that means all the loose threads abruptly come to an end but never seem to be finished. However, some continue on afterwards and come to a completion, but I still felt this particular scene could have been done differently, or extended, for a more satisfying conclusion.
But like I said, I really enjoyed the writing style of this book. It was witty, full of action, lots of detail (but without being boring) and hopeful, and so were the characters. Harper, our protagonist, is very well-crafted. You really get a sense that she’s an actual person, out in the world somewhere, rather than just lying flat on the page. She’s caring, compassionate and great under pressure. She grows throughout the book from a loving, but easily walked over, young woman, to a loving, but won’t take no shit from anyone, young woman. I admired her resilience and her obsession with a certain Disney musical was endearing.
My other favourite character was actually a middle-aged woman named Renée. She was funny and determined like Harper, with a real sense of justice. She’s the kind of woman you’d definitely want as your aunt.
The other characters were all well-rounded too, but those were the standout ones for me. Allie, Nick, Don Lewiston, Father Storey and The Fireman himself were all great. I especially liked how the author got an Englishman right! For once, he was referred to as ‘English’ with an ‘English accent’ (even though there isn’t a true English accent as there are so many in this country, but I hate when people say ‘British accent’ because that doesn’t exist! Your typical Welsh, Scottish and Northern Irish accents are extremely different in comparison to your quintessential English accent!). So Joe Hill definitely won brownie points from me.
In addition, some of the ‘science’ was a little fantastical and most probably could not happen in real life, but that’s why we read books, to see the boundaries being pushed, and these ‘fantastical’ elements never felt silly or ridiculous. Instead, they fitted in well with the story and made for a bit of a change from your usual viral outbreak book. The virus is very unique, not just your typical coughing up blood kinda virus you get in the apocalyptic genre, and clearly a lot of thought has gone into setting this book apart as an original addition to the genre.
As for the ending, I thought it was going to be unsatisfactory but thankfully it wasn’t, at least not for me. A little extra scene included as a Coda at the end provided some hope and possibility for something that occurred in the climax, so I was happy.
Overall, my only qualms were that sometimes the scenes were either too long or too short, and one scene in particular was a bit anticlimactic, but other than that I thoroughly enjoyed this novel and highly recommend it. It is pretty long, but it never really feels like it’s dragging, which can sometimes happen with big books. However, there was some of the best characterisation I’ve seen in quite a while so, if you want a really good character-driven book with an excellent story-line to boot, then look no further than The Fireman.
Have you read The Fireman? Or any other of Hill’s books? Do you like apocalyptic fiction? Let me know in the comments!