The Short Version: A new plague has begun to decimate humanity. Colloquially known as “Dragonscale”, it creates hypnotically beautiful black & gold marks on skin… before causing its carrier to burst into flame. When Harper Grayson, a nurse, shows the first skins of the ‘scale, her husband wants them to commit suicide – but she’s pregnant and committed to having the child. As civilization crumbles over the next nine months, she will fight to survive – and The Fireman, a figure of near-mythic stature who can control the ‘scale, will find her…
The Review: The best writers of speculative fiction are interested in more than just creating a fantastical world or circumstance – they’re interested in how humanity reacts to the extraordinary. Bradbury, Le Guin, Jackson, Pratchett, King… they all have humanity at the core of their stories, no matter what genre. Four books into what I hope will be a tremendously long career, I think it’s safe to add Joe Hill to that august pantheon of authors.
First, his imagination. Draco incendia trychophyton is such a brilliant invention, not because of its ability to inspire horror and terror and wonder (although it does inspire those things) but because it feels so wholly considered. How often do you pick up a book and see that the plague (or villainous plot or whatever) is excitingly invented but lacking in grounded reality? I loved Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven but the super-plague felt like little more than a plot device – and it’d be enough, for most authors and most stories, to let Dragonscale be a cool-sounding, scary-as-hell disease that the reader will take and run with. Not Hill, though: he knows that the scariest part of horror/terror is when you actually have a little knowledge about the thing that’s coming to scare you. Eldritch horror is well and good but what about the idea that a spore, a type of fungus, could take down humanity? Not only that, but once you start thinking about transmission vectors, about the spread of misinformation, about how this world is starting to look more and more like ours… it heightens the fear factor, because it settles more deeply into your mind.
Hill’s last book, NOS4A2, was chock full of frights (as were Horns and Heart-Shaped Box, really) and it should be noted that Hill hasn’t given up on terror here. There are moments that will linger long: a car rolling down a street, flames pouring from the windows; a man bursting into flame on an empty playground; a vengeful husband’s leer behind the wheel of a snowplow. But, like Bradbury and Jackson in particular, this is a book that just happens to involve fear – but is something much more nuanced. It’s an apocalypse novel, yes – but it’s also a novel of evolution, of the possibility of humanity’s survival through adaptation. This is not a fantasy novel, but there are moments that can only be described as magical. Hill is playing with the limits of genre with the aplomb of a master, creating a story that weaves together all of his interests and loves (mentions include but are not limited to: the Dire Straits, J.K. Rowling, The Dark Tower, Doctor Who, Mary Poppins, Watership Down, The Bridge of San Luis Rey…) and demands that the story be taken, entirely, on its own merits and not those that would be forced upon it by where it’s shelved in the bookstore.
Harper Grayson, our main character, is another strong female lead in the vein of Vic from NOS4A2 and she should stand as an emblem of excellence to both readers and writers everywhere. And Hill is now, two books in a row, putting other male writers on notice: there’s no reason not to write exceptional, strong, nuanced female leads. She’s a badass even at 9+ months pregnant – and that motherly instinct that rises up in her, the desire to protect not only her actual child but those who have come to form her family is so wonderful that it makes the reader ponder, just a little bit, why they read stories with any other type of main character. So too with the concept of the ‘chosen family’: Hill’s characters have a bond that is just as strong as that of blood, if not stronger, and the glommed-together family unit that comes together by the end of the novel is a particularly American invention, although the Trumps of the world might try to argue otherwise. But what is this country if not a place of hope, a place of coming together around an idea or ideal as opposed to any cosmetic or superficial factors? The promise of this country is that you can create a family unit comprised of a pregnant nurse, a British mycologist-turned-pseudo-vigilante, a middle-aged black lady, a deaf boy, and his sassy teenage older sister. And that that family is just as valid – if not more so – as the one where everybody is related by marriage or blood.
Now’s as good a time as any to turn to the title character: the Fireman. He’s a delightful invention, a wisecracking British guy of the David Tennant/Tom Hiddleston mold, and Hill pulls off the feat of turning him from a mysterious figure in the shadows into an entirely recognizable human over the course of the novel. His introduction is delightful, coming at the beginning of chapter three in the first section. “There was a fireman causing trouble,” opens that chapter – and then, when he’s next referenced again, he’s given proper noun status as “The Fireman.” It’s a simple moment but it gave me such a thrill because of how it played out. This is THE Fireman, not just any fireman. We know something about him in advance, that he will – for some reason – be important to this story. It’s a bit like knowing that Bruce Wayne is Batman and that, if the former has appeared, the latter can’t be far behind – even as the rest of the cast has no idea. But he transcends the archetypes (blaming himself for the death of someone he loved, a propensity for wisecracks, even a bit of a superpower), even as Hill uses them to construct the character’s backstory. But I’m glad that the Fireman isn’t our main character – because, as interesting and exciting as he is, he couldn’t’ve supported a 750-page novel in the same way that Harper does. It’s not his role and it wouldn’t’ve been as interesting if we’d been in his head the whole time. Harper’s struggle feels much more urgent, much more potent, much more “relatable”.
The large majority of the plot takes place in a compound, a former summer camp, where a group of the infected have found refuge – and, perhaps, a way of controlling their illness. Remember when I said, at the beginning of this review, that the best speculative fiction always looks into what the extraordinary circumstance reveals about humanity? Well, here you go. A bookseller quote on the back of my ARC calls the book “Lord of the Flies crossed with The Stand crossed with The Road” – and so you can assume what trials and tribulations may be in store for our heroes at this camp. Add to the list of moments that will be engrained in my fear centers forever: a rock, taped into someone’s mouth.
Hill’s treatment of religion, groupthink, paranoia, community, vigilantism, fear of the unknown/the outsider, and power can be read as a commentary on our present moment – and I think readers would do well to keep that commentary in (at least) the back of their minds while reading. You can take this as pure entertainment, but that’d show an almost willful misinterpretation (or just non-interpretation) of the story Hill has laid out before us. We’re facing all kinds of possible ends of our world – by hook or by crook, disease or war, tyrant or theologian – and it’s important to remember humanity’s indomitable goodness, the sense that survival means nothing if we don’t do it together. The Fireman is a terrific adventure read – but it’s the heart of the writer that elevates it to exceptional status.
Rating: 5+ out of 5. Joe Hill is compulsively readable. I read the entire back half of the novel over this past holiday weekend, because I simply couldn’t put it down. But more than engrossing prose stylings, Hill’s intelligence and heart make the book outstanding. He deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as the titans of speculative fiction both past and present, and I think this may be the book to catapult him into that next strata. He’s destroyed the world with such beauty and dare-I-call-it magic, all the while keeping sight of the wonder and power of humanity – making for one hell of a read, indeed.