By Joe Hill
Publisher: William Morrow
Pub. date: May 17, 2016
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Joe Hill has certainly made a name for himself and it is not just because of his genetic credentials. He is unarguably one hell of a writer and arguably one of the best fantasy/horror writers actively working. In Heart-Shaped Box, Horns, and especially NOS4A2, Hill has hit a peak of popularity in the horror genre previously known only to…”You know who”. In fact, the range of The Fireman suggests that, like his father, Hill is setting sights far beyond the horror ghetto. Or to put it more colloquially, he is eyeing a place at the adult table. It is not surprising that The Fireman would be so hyped and eagerly awaited. The book’s post-apocalyptic atmosphere and its epic size (over 700 pages!) set up the reader to expect a lot. Is this really going be the answer to The Stand as one book promotion so foolishly worded it?
Of course not. There is a lot of good in The Fireman but also a lot of not-so-good. Any novel needs to be judged on what is in the pages and how it all comes together, not the hype or the author’s past achievements. In The Fireman we are introduced to a very near future where there is a disease that creates gold and black marks on the body and eventually causes the victim to spontaneously combust. Harper Grayson, a nurse who works with the victims, becomes a victim herself when she breathes in the ashes of a burning hospital. Her husband convinces her to make a pact to kill themselves before the disease turns them into flames. But when she discovers she is pregnant she cannot go through with it since she have seen people with the disease bear healthy babies. This leads her to a community of people with the affliction hiding from the Cremation Squads who are killing the bearers of the Dragonscale, as it is called. They have their own way of surviving the Dragonscale. It is a very imaginative way and one of the great strengths of this tale. The community is looked over by a man who has done more than survive, having learned how to use the Dragonscale for defense and revenge. He is called The Fireman.
It is an intriguing plot and for the first two hundred pages or so it works. But then it falters for a variety of reasons. By 200 pages, the reader is realizing there is a lot of filler here. We learn about the residents of this new community mainly through backstories told by the residents themselves. It is a rambling, action-stopping form of storytelling that is needlessly long. This is especially troublesome since many of the characters do have interesting back stories which lead to their development. But it still halts the flow. The main character Harper is quite interesting and she is certainly a strong character that kept me wanting to know how she would fare through. I was also intrigued by the fireman and his connection with the group and with Harper. I sensed a sort of a Wuthering Heights relationship building up and I wasn’t wrong. Yet I was not convinced by her decision to stay in what turns out to be the equivalent of a dysfunctional family. What we end up with is a story that is trying to be an epic tale when it really want to be a very good 200-300 page novel.
I was not always sure what the author wanted to do with his plot. It starts out at the beginning as a post-apocalyptic novel and I like the emphasis on Harper as being the eyes we see it through. It lent a personal touch of an individual struggling through a plague that threatens to destroy the world. I also liked how we slowly learn what the Dragonscale is and discovers what it really means for the survivors and their world. Yet when we get into the residents of the community, it starts to be less post-apocalyptic and more Lord of the Flies. It’s a U-turn that didn’t work well with me. Then we have some unrealistic characters like Allie, a teenage girl who I assume is supposed to be precocious and likable but I just wanted to kick her in the behind.
Having said all that, much of The Fireman is excellent. There is no getting around the fact that Joe Hill can write some amazing scenes and there are quite a few in this novel. It’s the tie-in to each that slows it down. This is one of those books that has a dynamite novel in it hidden by filler that could have been fixed by a more word-budget oriented writer and a tight-ass editor. However, Joe Hill fans, and I count myself as one of them, will not be entirely disappointed. Despite my misgivings, the author is still writing above anyone else on the bestseller lists in this genre. It also is a nice step to bigger stories with more universal themes, a place I see him going with gusto, just like” you know who” at the same stage in his career. But NOS4A2 is still his masterpiece and shows more structure, imagination and experimentation than The Fireman. If you have not read anything by Joe Hill, that is where you want to go.