The Fireman by Joe Hill
Just finished reading The Fireman by Joe Hill which is my first book by this author and certainly won’t be my last.
I went into this story cold. I didn’t even properly read the write up for the book to be honest. I just knew I wanted to try it and I didn’t want any hints before doing so. I’m not really sure what I was expecting, given the title and the book cover, something explosive but also given the two books I already own by this author that I’m waiting to read, I also figured something based in the land of fantasy. In actual fact what the author gives us here is a rather terrifying glimpse into a world gone quite insane with fear and mass hysteria. I don’t know whether it’s purely coincidence that by removing three letters from the word ‘pandemic’ that you have the word ‘panic’ but it certainly seems to be that the one follows the other – especially here. And I can’t deny that this was, in spite of it’s length, a compelling and horrifying read, particularly so as it has a remarkably easy to believe quality to it.
The premise of the story. A worldwide pandemic that infects it’s victims with a spore that takes root within a person. It has a much longer name but is commonly known as Dragonscale. The first signs are a series of eye catching swirls and stripes that appear on the infected person’s bodies. Almost like black and gold tattoos that are beautiful to look upon but spell the beginning of the end for the carrier. As the disease takes hold the infected person literally becomes a human time bomb – waiting to burst into flame with no real knowledge of when, why or how. Of course as the disease spreads and the infected take refuge in hospitals and other centres one act of spontaneous combustion can quite literally set off a chain reaction that can spell devastation for the area in question. This in turn causes fear both in the infected and in those not affected and eventually results in a breakdown in the way people behave and treat each other.
Throughout the story we follow a very strong and easy to like character named Harper. Harper is a nurse. This isn’t just a job to Harper but a vocation. She loves to help people and has a calm nature when dealing with a crisis. At the start of the story she works in a school but pretty soon, as the civilisation we know starts to break down, she volunteers at a hospital – until one day she wakes to find the gold and black swirls adorning her own body. Harper’s story then changes dramatically, at the same time as becoming infected with the disease she also learns she’s pregnant and she desperately wants to survive to deliver the baby. Her husband has different ideas.
From this point on the story, and indeed the world portrayed is beginning to spiral out of control with the infected simply trying to hide and stay alive. Gangs of wannabe vigilantes start to form, searching for the infected. They call themselves ‘the Cremation Crew’ and as the name suggests they don’t want to offer tea and sympathy but rather a more speedy demise to those carrying the spore.
At the same time a character known as ‘The Fireman’ begins his own crusade. Sweeping in to rescue those people who are being persecuted he pretty quickly garners a reputation as a hero with superhuman abilities.
I don’t want to give too much away but eventually Harper finds refuge of sorts at a place called Camp Wyndham where other carriers are hiding. To be honest it feels a little at this point like Harper has gone from the frying pan into the fire as the people in Wyndham, whilst appearing to have found a way to beat the inevitable fire and death also have a ‘cult’ like feel. They’re suffering from their own ‘pack’ fear and are starting to take the ‘all for one, one for all’ mantra a little too far.
The whole story has the feel of a ticking bomb. The infected trying to stay hidden. The Cremation Crew becoming more bloodthirsty in their attempts to rid the world of the infected. And everyone, whether they have the disease or not, falling victim to fear.
What I really liked about this. It’s well written. The author really manages to instill a sense of awful and impending doom. Like the people in the story the fear seemed to seep from the pages until I was reading with an ever growing sense of dread. I also really enjoyed the way that both sets of characters are wracked with fear, seemingly for different reasons but put basically the fear of death. I thought the concept was really well explored, in fact maybe given a dose of too much reality giving it an even scarier feel and the characters are given a lot of depth.
In terms of criticisms. This is a long book – almost 800 pages – I wouldn’t say that it felt long or onerous to read and I certainly didn’t find myself trying to skim anything but I do feel that some of this could have been tightened just a little without losing anything really significant. I also had issues with the ending – particularly in terms of being a little easy to second guess and also in one respect a bit disappointing – although I do like that the ending remains open.
I think if you like books such as The Road, The Passage, The Girl With All the Gifts or books that have an ‘apocalyptic’ feel then you would probably love this too. I’m not trying to compare this or say it’s the same as any of those books, this book stands on it’s own two feet, but it has that catastrophe, things spiralling into decay, end of world, brutal and harsh feel. And, no zombies. Just saying.
I thought this was a good read and would definitely recommend. It is long but it has plenty going on and the pace is relentless (in fact I almost, at points, wished the author would give the characters a break!)
I received a copy courtesy of the publishers through Edelweiss for which my thanks. The above is my own opinion.