Well y’all. I did it. I finished the behemoth tome that is Joe Hill’s latest, The Fireman.
What. A. Journey.
<<Spoilers ahead. You’ve been warned.>>
Tapping out at 747 pages, The Fireman follows Harper Grayson née Willowes as an airborne spore destabilizes the world. We sit with Harper and Jakob in their New Hampshire living room in the first chapter and watch as the Space Needle in Seattle burns on the news, watch people jumping out of windows to escape the all encompassing fire that makes up these pages. The sickness is Draco Incendia Trychophyton and it creeps into you without causing any harm at first. You breathe in the infected air and slowly, lines begin inking themselves in intricate patterns; one here, one there. At first. Then it covers your whole body and your insides reflect your outsides; the Dragonscale begins impacting your very make-up.
If you paid any attention in Latin, or have any Harry Potter knowledge you recognize the first word in the disease’s name. Draco, dragon. It’s pretty easy to infer Incendia after that. When the spore begins feeling (feeling?) that the host is threatened (anxiety, sickness, fear) it begins to save itself. The host, the human, the body combusts and burns from the inside. Our lovely Harper is a school nurse who, after schools shut down and institutions begin crumbling (which happens pretty quickly as this book spans a little over nine months…) begins volunteering at the hospital where the sick and infected are asked to stay/are corralled and kept. It is in this setting that we first meet three of the four people with whom Harper will primarily share this journey. First is the Fireman.
Our title character is charming and aggravating (as most are) and British (think Rufus Sewell). And as the world is breaking down and falling apart this fireman is bringing in an injured, deaf boy Nick to the hospital (the whole time I pictured Ben from Stepmom). Neither of them seem to show any visible signs of the ‘scale, are not complaining about the usual symptoms. After much debate, they are waved through to the small portion of the hospital still seeing non-‘scaled individuals. We don’t see them again for a bit but fret not fellow swooners, the Brit comes back. Next, we meet Ms. Renee Gilmonton who is the just the absolute sweetest lady. She reads to her fellow infected hospitalmates, primarily the children; keeping them calm and relaxed (Renee reminds me of Oprah, not glam Oprah, but the Oprah of that famous camping trip with Gale).
Anyways, now that you’ve got some visuals, let us move right along.
We quickly discover with Harper as our guide that she is not only pregnant but she is also infected and boy howdy let me tell you, Jakob is not happy about this combo. So not happy, in fact that he actually blames her for having a Florence Nightingale type syndrome in which she can’t leave people be. Yeah, because that’s a bad thing. Jakob is a grade-A-Scott-Disick-type-douche; something that is apparent from the first time we see how his name is spelled. After he leaves Harper alone for in their house for days (weeks?) he comes back and suggests they kill themselves. Yup. She has it, so he infers that he has it. There is no conversation of should we or shouldn’t we, no concern for the fact that there is also their unborn child to consider, nada. Let’s just do the damn thing is pretty much his attitude. The reader is able to very quickly realize that not only is Jakob an ass but he is also legit crazy. His decision on the matter has been made up and as Harper tries to get away from this nutcase, with whom she has very quickly fallen out of love, she runs UPSTAIRS to escape him. Because that always works so well in the movies, right? I won’t say anymore on the manner of her escape because it is super tense and I would like you to feel that anxiety along with Harper as you read for yourself the measures she takes to get away from him.
And obviously she escapes because there are still 700 pages left in the novel.
After our heroine ditches the psycho we arrive at Camp Wyndham which is where the second act begins. Where better to hide a growing group of infected than an abandoned summer camp? It really is a great setting. Here we meet Ally, Nick’s older sister. Ally, Nick, and their family began bringing in infected to the safe haven of Wyndham pretty early into the epidemic and this is where Harper finds community, safety, and a chance to breathe…and sing. This is a community that is no great risk of burning up for they have found refuge in harmony.
Throughout history, fear has always inspired hatred and that is incredibly prevalent in the world of The Fireman. Society very quickly devolves into an “us and them” type divide and the small bits of news we hear on the mostly static filled radio demonstrate this. Cremation Crews are formed and murder goes from frowned upon to commonplace. Throughout the whole book, Hill keeps his characters very black and white making bad guys and good guys very easily discernible (with an exception towards the end of the second act). The divide between good and evil and right and wrong is prevalent throughout. This is something that goes beyond the characters and extends to morals and beliefs. What is right to a “bad guy” is not what is right to a “good guy” but who is to say which is which? If you were not infected and viewed those who were as a threat to your well being and that of your family’s, then you would protect yourself in whatever way possible, right? If you are infected but not dangerous you would want to live and not be put down/out of your misery because you wouldn’t be miserable. Perspective is very important in this tale despite the fact that ours as readers never shifts.
Sprinkled through the middle of the book are mentions of an island that has remained under the care of the CDC despite the collapse of all other official acronymed orgs. Martha Quinn’s island (yes, that Martha Quinn) promises safety and developments and doctors. Sounds too good to be true; a point made by several in the Wyndham community. However as time goes on and disastrous events occur, it is clear to our little band within the camp that they need to get to this island one way or another. Harper is particularly keen to get there as it is unknown what the ‘scale will have done to the baby. And so, as the second act closes with a bell tolling, the final act opens with our heroes on a somewhat forced and hasty journey to the mysterious island. Miles and miles are crossed and mishap after tragedy follow our travelers.
Up until now there have been some pretty good plot twists, real solidly developed characters, and fairly good pacing despite the book’s page count. There are amazing pop culture references throughout (his description of how J.K. Rowling meets her end is gut wrenching). However, towards the end, the last 100/150 pages or so, things begin to get pretty predictable. While this is an obvious bummer, you’ve got to give Hill props for keeping things exciting and juke filled for as many pages as he does. The Fireman offers readers adventure and romance, heartache and danger, terror and hope. There are factions of mankind that turn into despicable monsters and there are those who are able to keep their compasses pointed North in hopes that not all is ruined.
Hope burns fiercely in Joe Hill‘s The Fireman.