Book: “The Fireman” by Joe Hill
Publishing Info: William Morrow, May 2016
Where Did I Get This Book: I bought it!
Book Description from Goodreads: From the award-winning, New York Times bestselling author ofNOS4A2 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.
Review: Joe Hill is easily my favorite writer out there at the moment. I haven’t read a piece of work of his that I haven’t really enjoyed. His comic “Locke and Key” is one of my all time favorites, and his novel “NOS4A2” was my favorite book I read in 2014. When he first announced his most recent novel, “The Fireman”, I had to wait a long while before it was actually published. I waited not that patiently, and then put it on pre-order so I could get it and start it the day that it came out. And then a few days later (aka this past Saturday), I had the opportunity to see him in Minneapolis reading from this book. My friends and I were treated to a lovely evening of Joe Hill reading an excerpt, a sing along, and a great Q and A session.
It took me four days to read this 700-some page book, and let me tell you, I had a very hard time putting it down. While “NOS4A2” remains my favorite of Joe Hill’s novels, “The Fireman” is a very close second. There are many reasons for this, which I could probably write a dissertation on, but I will try and keep the fan-girling to a minimum.
Hill has always been praised for his amazing character development, and “The Fireman” has an entire slew of characters that reinforce this praise. While the book is named after John Rookwood, the avenger who dresses like a fireman and can manipulate his Dragonscale to control the fire inside, this book is solidly about Harper Willowes, the pregnant nurse who just wants to survive so her can have her baby. When we first meet Harper, she is a sunny and optimistic school nurse who is very good at keeping things positive for those around her. But when a man stumbles upon the playground and bursts into flames, Harper’s world starts to crumble, so her resolve in this regard is tested. While Harper does, of course, have to adapt to her new surroundings, her strength is always apparent and she does not have to sacrifice her core personality to this bleak landscape. I LOVED that. It would be so easy to turn her into a cynical, bitter shell of her former self, but Hill instead keeps her character very Mary Poppins, therein reinforcing that women can be strong in many, many ways and don’t have to fit a certain mold to survive. By the end of this book I was worshiping at the altar of Harper Willowes, and put her up there with my other favorite Hill female characters. The holy trinity for those interested are Georgia from “Heart Shaped Box”, Vic from “NOS4A2”, and now Harper. I loved how she interacted with all of the other characters, especially her slow progression from damsel, to ally, to equal when paired up with Rookwood. She knows that he’s messed up, cares for him all the same, but does not put up with any of his nonsense.
Harper is also very loving and maternal not just to her unborn child, but to other children at Camp Wyndham, the sanctuary she finds herself at. Her relationships with Allie and Nick, the children of Rookwood’s dead girlfriend Sarah. Allie is angry and very, very flawed, while Nick is sweet and introverted. Harper approaches them in ways that are never patronizing. She doesn’t put up with Allie’s crap when she is at her worst, but always lets her know that she is, ultimately, loved. And Harper goes out of her way to learn sign language so she can communicate with Nick, who is deaf and therefore always feels very much like The Other at the camp. Harper treats them both with respect and kindness, and never patronizes them.
John Rookwood in turn was always at his best when he was interacting with Harper. As he is so inclined to not be the optimist, they played off each other and helped each other see other sides of things, and never really belittled each other for their opposing outlooks. I was afraid that he was going to merely be there to say ‘I told you so’ when things went wrong, but it never felt that way. He served as a contrast, because if Harper is caring, he is vengeful, and they helped each other find those parts in each other when it was necessary. Plus, his powers are just cool. I mean, he can throw fire and make giant fire birds. It was also very cool to see him in contrast to Harper’s husband, Jakob. While Jakob started out as this kind of mellow, caring, intelligent guy, the moment that Harper got sick he showed his true colors and revealed himself to be a despicable, terrifying antagonist. Rookwood sort of had the opposite transformation, as he, while never terrible, did start out as coarse and a bit harsh. But Dragonscale, and Harper too, empowered him and made him a better person who was more inclined to become part of something bigger than just himself and his grief for Sarah. It was very interesting seeing these two very different men react to their surroundings and situations, and see how they are changed by the illness that is destroying civilization.
And it can’t be a pandemic story without human beings totally falling apart, so while it was no surprise that Camp Wyndham became a freaky violent cult, it was still very upsetting to watch. While other pandemic stories usually jump right to the cult once it’s already been established as such, “The Fireman” lets the reader see how Camp Wyndham went from a loving sanctuary with many loving characters, to a horrific example of group think run amok. When Harper meets them, she finds a group of people who have Dragonscale who have learned to control it, and harness the goodness of it. Calling this The Bright, they’ve discovered that singing all together can make them all glow, and give the community a sense of euphoria and belonging. It really does start out as a safe haven for people who are being hunted down and killed by Cremation Squads, led by a bigoted radio shock jock calling himself The Marlboro Man. And because we got to see the characters at their best before, and understand why they are afraid, seeing them at their worst was especially heartbreaking. While it would be very easy to have them be dangerous cultists from the get go, Hill has no interest in letting the reader take the easy way out when it comes to this group. And boy, does that hurt.
I do think that this book went on a little longer than I wanted it to, but that’s really the only qualm that I have with it. With a sudden shift in setting after a situation that would have made a perfectly great climax, it started to drag a little bit, but I totally get why the choice was made. The ultimate ending, however, was absolutely beautiful, and I was openly weeping as I read through to the VERY last page of the book. And I mean the very last page. That’s a hint, from me to you.
I absolutely adored this book. Joe Hill continues to be my favorite author writing today, and “The Fireman” shows off his talents in all of their red hot burning glory. Also, see him speak if you have the opportunity. He’s a joy.
Rating 10: Another fabulous dark fantasy/horror story from Joe Hill. I loved every bit of this book, from the characters, the themes, and the writing.
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