Book cover of The Fireman by Joe HillAfter having read and enjoyed Horns, when I heard about the latest book by Joe Hill, The Fireman, I immediately put a hold on it at my library. I was lucky enough to be one of the first patrons to read a copy, as it still had this shiny “new” sticker on the spine.

The main premise is a disease that is taking over the planet and makes people spontaneously combust. Authorities have figured out that it transfers through contact, and that stressful situations (like being surrounded by other spontanenously combusting humans) sometimes sets it off and victims ignite. Our main character is Harper, who was a school nurse, but volunteers in triage at the local hospital now that all the schools are closed and half the planet is covered in charred remains. And there our story begins.

I definitely enjoyed The Fireman although it was a bit of a slow start. It was well worth my time and I would recommend it to others who want a down-to-earth story about the end of the world with a bit of horror/fantasy.

From the award-winning, New York Times bestselling author of NOS4A2 and Heart-Shaped Box comes a chilling novel about a worldwide pandemic of spontaneous combustion that threatens to reduce civilization to ashes and a band of improbable heroes who battle to save it, led by one powerful and enigmatic man known as the Fireman.
The fireman is coming. Stay cool.

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.

From the publisher, HarperCollins Canada

What I liked most about Hill’s take on the apocalypse, was that it wasn’t a global focus. The story revovles around what this one group of Dragonscale-afflicted people does to survive, particularly Harper, the main character.

Hill doesn’t have to contend with any of the problematic elements of world-building or logic in the post-apocalypic world, because most of it is atmospheric and situational. What does come into play is how the plague acts and reacts, yet the spore has more of a fantastical feel than requiring science or logic to govern its fit in the world.

It’s not really spoiling anything to say that Harper finds a group of similarly infected people who are trying to hide in an unused kids summer camp, and she joins their society. Hill explores what people are willing to endure when faced with life and death, and what pushes people past their limits, in a sequestered society. As the solice begins more and more to resemble a religious cult, the reader feels more uncomfortable.

I really liked that all the characters were flawed, as well as admirable. (Well, except for Harper’s douchebag husband Jakob, I hated him by page 8. Hint: Don’t call a woman “babygirl”. I think I vomited in my mouth a little every time I read it.) Harper, although she strives to be a Mary Poppins–style sensible problem solver, and she’s a bit naive, she also makes mistakes and wises up by the end.

For most of the book, the titular Fireman (aka John Rookwood) takes on this god-like quality, but Hill slowly strips away his affectations and shows the fallible man beneath. Ben Pachett, although he means well and wants to protect Camp Wyndham, is so chauvanistic: “Uh-oh. The hens are clucking over something”—when Harper and Renee were just having a private giggle. Even Allie, although just a teenager, manages to be admirable and then completely inhumane.

But that’s what makes these characters feel so real—the raw honesty of their qualities and display of their negative traits without apology.

Hill also has an affinity for cliffhangers, but in a kinda tongue-in-cheek way. Instead of trying to build up the tension and one-up himself every chapter, he would throw in some negative impending event in a nonchalant way.

Harper gazed at him blankly, feeling wrong-footed and mixed up. She had looked through the diary plent of times and was sure Harold had said John Rookwood had been his one ally in the last days.

“Enough of this,” he said and nodded at the door. “You have to go. Keep your head down and hurry right back to the infirmary. We’ll figure it out later. There’ll be another night for this.”

But there never was.

Some of the dated pop culture references went over my head, but it didn’t deter from the story. The references sit more like Easter eggs than important touchstones, nestled comfortably in the thoughts and dialogue of the characters.

Speaking of the dialogue, some of the witty banter was too perfect, but that didn’t stop me from laughing out loud sometimes:

“Now that the world is over, what do you most regret not getting to do?”

“Julianne More,” [John] said. “And Gillian Anderson. At the same time or separately, it really would’ve made no difference.”

“I mean what did you want to do that actually might’ve happened.”

“I wish I had discovered a new kind of mold I could’ve named after Sarah.”

“Wow. You romantic son of a bitch.”

“What about Harper Willowes? What did you always want to do?”

“Me? Julianne Moore, same as you. That hot little bitch had one fine ass.”

Although the premise of The Fireman is around an apocalypic plague, this horror-fantasy crossover novel never feels unrealistic. Part of that is the fact that it centers around a core group of characters and their struggle to live instead of their struggle to save the whole damn world. That’s the main problem I have with a lot of dystopian and post-apocalypic stories—the heroes are focused on saving civilization. Joe Hill, of the two books I’ve read, doesn’t have a cut-and-dry hero/heroine. There is no one trying to save the day, just a lot of admirable, yet flawed, characters, trying to sort out their shit.

“Fiction is one place we go to explore the anxieties in ordinary life, where we take stressful subjects and play with it.” — Joe Hill, in a Wired interview