The Fireman by Joe Hill
In a change from the norm this post is a first for The Eloquent Page, a review written by two people. Thanks to Nadine for her invaluable insight. The Fireman has prompted much vigorous discussion and debate in our household.
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.
The world is on fire and humanity is literally toast. In The Fireman, a deadly spore, nicknamed Dragonscale is causing humans to burst into flames. Once infected, it appears it is only a matter of time and your days are numbered because you’re gonna burn.
The bulk of the narrative follows a nurse called Harper Grayson. We first meet her just at the beginning of the outbreak. Right around that time, she discovers she is pregnant. What follows is her journey not just to survive but to ensure her unborn child remains safe.
Nadine felt, in his earlier works, that Hill was not great at female characters – finding them a little stereotypical and not as fleshed out as the male characters. This book shows quite clearly how Joe Hill has grown as an author. While the protagonist Harper doesn’t break any boundaries, she is brave, determined, smart, courageous and kind. She is no superhero though. She has her flaws too, mostly her relationship with Jakob. Harper’s husband and father to her baby, is not a pleasant man. While I am sure he believes he cares for her, he displays a classic controlling behaviour – isolating her, criticism of small things, conditional affection and physical threats. Harper seems to spend her whole life pleasing others and comes across as something of a doormat. Her own wishes and feelings seem secondary to others. Until Harper discovers her pregnancy, she seems to have a lack of direction.
As a trained nurse she is kind and empathetic, offering just the right words or distraction tactic to alleviate the concerns of her patients, but her plans for the future seem to focus more on what her husband wants. It isn’t the Dragonscale that transforms her, but the pregnancy. Not until she is pregnant, and makes the decision to stay alive long enough to deliver her baby, that she fights for something that opposes her husband’s wishes. The growth of Harper continues throughout the second half of the book. It’s almost like there are two different versions of her. The evolution of Harper’s character is fascinating.
The other main character is “the fireman” of the title, John Rockwood. While others are bemoaning the spread of Dragonscale and the trauma that it brings, John is far more philosophical about things.
Humanity is a germ that thrives on the very edge of catastrophe.
I’ll admit I’d never really thought about it like that, but he kind of has a point. As the plot unfolds, you get to learn much more about this enigmatic chap. The Fireman might just be the one person who really understands the nature of the seismic change that is occurring in the world. He is certainly one of the first to fully embrace it.
While I empathise entirely with Harper’s predicament, I was far more enthralled by learning about the others who inhabit Camp Wyndham, a refuge for those with Dragonscale. There are a whole host of secondary characters who add their voices to the mix. I loved them all. Allie, Renee, Nick, Jakob and Carol are wonderfully realised. The author has that canny knack of making his creations feel entirely real and like you’ve known them all for years. These are just normal people forced into extraordinary circumstances. For me, watching how these people cope (or not in some cases) is what makes this novel really excel.
Hill also uses The Fireman to cast his eye over the current political landscape in the United States. There is (justified) criticism of a lot of the fear and ignorance that drives right wing politics occurring in the US at the moment. Hill uses his fictional end of days to explore some of these themes and really pick them apart. It is interesting to note how the leaders in this imaginary America treat the populous. Those infected by Dragonscale are ostracised, almost treated like modern day lepers. It is all deeply unpleasant stuff. As tensions inevitably escalate, the rise of the ‘cremation crews’ are particularly nasty. Violence and death become the norm rather than the exception. If I had read this book 5 years ago, I think I may have thought the treatment of those infected far-fetched and inhumane — the round ups, the incarcerations, the mass slaughter. What with potential US presidential candidates willing to build walls to keep the perceived undesirables out, and vigilante border patrols willing to back this up, this novel doesn’t see quite so outlandish these days.
The Fireman is a satisfyingly chunky novel, clocking in at well over seven hundred pages long. I love huge novels like this. It gives the author the opportunity to take his time, to establish the rules of his fictional universe. He also has the chance to examine how society would change and be forced to function. The inhabitants of Camp Wyndham behave exactly the way I would expect a group of post-apocalyptic survivors to. People fall into roles, sub-groups form, and social statuses are founded. Unlike other survivor however, this group have not just learned to live with their condition, but to harness it. But as with every collection of humans, there is conflict. Watching how petty jealousies eat away at people and then boil over into violence and revenge is utterly riveting.
The book ends on a suitably upbeat note. There is a long way to go but, excuse the pun, there is a spark of hope. I’ve read plenty of novels where humanity is completely and utterly destroyed. Those aren’t really the books that stay with me. It’s the stories that end with that tiny seed of optimism that work for me. That miniscule chance that we can be something better than what we are now, that we are worth saving. Ultimately, I suppose that’s what I really take from apocalyptic fiction, a sense of hope. This kind of story is not about how the human race ends, it’s about what comes next. It is about us grasping at a possibility and embracing it wholeheartedly. If we are not afraid to look forward rather than always looking back, just imagine what we could become?
You’ve probably guessed already that we both enjoyed The Fireman quite a bit. This is thoughtful, immersive fiction that deserves your complete attention. The best advice I can give? Take the phone off the hook, lock the door and make sure you have a fire extinguisher handy. In our opinion, this book is right up there with the likes of Swan Song, Blood Crazy and, yes, even The Stand. (Yup, we went there, it’s that damn good.)
The Fireman is published by Gollancz and is available now. I rather suspect, based on the conversations that have taken place in our household and the fact we both devoured the novel at the same time, this is going to be a quite popular book. It certainly deserves to be. Like all my favourite apocalyptic fiction* I’m going to keep coming back to The Fireman again and again.
*The is a very select list and I’ve definitely added The Fireman to it.