*Gut Reaction Review*
Author: Joe Hill
Holy hand grenades, this book is good.
How good, you say? Good enough that I went out on a limb with a genre and author that were both new to me and checked out a nearly 750 page book off the library’s “sizzler” shelf, thereby presenting me with a 4-day checkout period, no renewals, and $1/day overdue fines.
By the end of day 1, I was 300 pages through and in no mood to slow down. How’s that for an endorsement? But it is quite different from the YA typically reviewed here, and as such, I have a few content notes up front. This isn’t to discourage you from reading it, just to make you aware.
The Fireman is an adult thriller – emphasis on the adult. If you have a low tolerance for bad language, I’d steer clear. This book is about an epidemic, and what gets spouted is commensurate with the level of panic that such an event would induce. Ditto for raunchy references/joking. The actual act of intercourse is limited to an innocuous scene between a married couple, but there is a lot of talk from all fronts. If you already read things classified as adult fiction, then I wouldn’t worry, but if your sensibilities are more in the YA-scope you might want to test drive the first 100 pages before spending nearly $30 on a hardback.
Still with me? On to the book!
The world is on fire – literally. But instead of mankind setting the fire, mankind is the fire. The disease commonly referred to as Dragonscale is sweeping the country. You’ll know you’ve contracted it when black and gold marks begin to sweep across your skin in a perverse display of beauty before the disease makes you spontaneously combust. Nobody knows how it’s contracted or how to cure it, and entire states are going up in flames.
Before the hospital burned to the ground, Nurse Harper Grayson spent her days trying to bring cheer to the increasingly crowded quarantine ward. But when the marks appear on her own skin, no one returns the favor. She and her husband, Jakob, had made a pact to end their lives together should either of them contract Dragonscale, a pact she no longer wants to honor since she’s recently become pregnant and believes she can birth a healthy baby.
To put it simply, Jakob goes off the deep end. He thinks Harper has infected him and is about to whack her off himself when salvation arrives in the form of the Fireman. Unlike the countless victims Harper witnessed blazing at the hospital, the Fireman has a pyromancy level of control over his Dragonscale. He ignites and extinguishes at will, and whisks Harper from her unhinged husband to a hidden camp. That sounds a lot more romantic than it is – this book is gritty in its realism.
While the camp residents don’t have the Fireman’s capability of manipulating the flame, they have learned to contain it. At Camp Wyndham, nobody burns. It’s an oasis of belonging – until it isn’t.
One of the most interesting things about this book is how the focus shifts from the disease itself to living in the aftermath of its destruction. Once Harper gets a grip on the Dragonscale, she begins to settle into life as the camp nurse. But fear is a cruel mistress, and slowly seeps into the idyllic community. The hazy cult of personality that always existed around the camp’s leaders crystallizes into a hard, brutal thing, and Harper and the Fireman find themselves on the outs. While the book’s most violent events largely take place outside of camp, its most gut-wrenching take place within. Author Joe Hill delivers an expertly crafted, terrifying story arc of how decent people gradually come to perpetrate terrible deeds in the name of the common good.
This is a story about survival – first from the disease, then from the other people left in a world gone mad. The science behind Dragonscale is gradually uncovered in a way that will be understandable to any reader. The disease is fictional, but its attributes are grounded in science, which keeps this book firmly planted in reality and quite frankly makes it scarier. This isn’t a far-off Hunger Games future; this is a world that could come to pass next week. Every sort of emotion comes to the forefront at some point – panic, ecstasy, insanity, belonging, false righteousness, family – and all are expressed with the same level of intense believability.
If you’re used to YA fantasy fighting, like I am, this might be a jarring wakeup. Nothing is gratuitously violent; it’s not a slasher, but let’s just say that swords and bows offer a sort of glamorous shield that doesn’t exist in The Fireman. The violence that does occur is by turns desperate, haphazard, callous and cold-hearted, coming to pass in shockingly believable ways that fit the present-day world this book is set in.
The hefty 700+ page count means you can really dig into it, but even then The Fireman flies by incredibly quickly. Every hundred pages or so you’ll catch yourself thinking “things can’t get any worse,” only to realize that there is a lot of book left and they will absolutely get worse. Luckily, I’m happy to report that The Fireman has a satisfying finale. That doesn’t mean everybody lives, or that everyone comes together in a big group hug, but things wrap up with a little bit of hope, a little bit of desperation and enough closure to make The Fireman well worth the read.