“Excellent. Really, really excellent” – The Fireman by Joe Hill
Right, we’re going to do this. We’re going to do this. We’re going to review Joe Hill’s new novel The Fireman without once mentioning his parentage. Without even referencing a single one of his father’s novels. On its own merits. Totally solo. Come on. We can do this.
The Fireman is excellent. Really, really excellent. It might well be Joe Hill’s masterpiece. It’s a novel that first and foremost appears to be about a plague, a terrible plague that causes spontaneous human combustion within anyone who catches it. Incurable – Glen Beck explodes at the start – that’s how serious it all is. But what starts out as a novel about a plague, and all that typical post-apocalyptic nonsense that goes along with it, shifts gear at the end of a wildly entertaining first third, and becomes something much, much more interesting.
See, this is a novel about tribal behaviour. This is about a plague that can be tamed. Imagine a cancer that you can keep at bay if you fall in line with a crowd. A leprosy that can be stemmed by just behaving like everyone else. Maybe worse, a meningitis that you can control, if you just follow orders from the top. You can read into that in a great many ways, and look for parallels in history – the Nazi party for example, but what Joe Hill is really interrogating with The Fireman seems to be social media.
Harper Grayson contracts Dragonscale – the mysterious explosive plague – and is forced to leave her home (narrowly escaping a murderous ex-husband), she is carrying a child and wants to ensure that he has a happy future ahead of him. Rescued by a mysterious Fireman, she finds shelter at a nearby holiday camp (namechecking John Wyndham) and discovers quickly that she doesn’t have to die; that Dragonscale can be controlled if you all ‘sing in harmony’. At first, this singing is literal, a joyous relief that the plague is not a death sentence, but quickly, as relationships in the camp unravel, and a hostile takeover is enacted, ‘singing in harmony’ makes way for the kinds of tribal acts we see all the time on Twitter – public shaming, threats of sexual abuse, and in one particularly nasty scene – a physical attack on our main character that feels like an horrific combination of both.
Very early on in The Fireman, it feels as though Hill could knock out a fairly typical post-apocalyptic novel, and that he’d probably write a pretty decent one. He could probably do it with his eyes closed and it would still be an engaging, readable thing. What makes The Fireman stand above his other novels, and other novels of it’s like, is the strength of its central metaphor.
That’s not to say that his characters aren’t compelling either – Harper is a beautifully realised character, full of resilience and strength, and the titular Fireman (a fellow Mancunion no less) is a fascinating ball of contradictions and emotion. The rest of the cast don’t fare too badly either, an unconventional motley crew of folk, all of whom I came to care about deeply whilst I read it.
I loved this book. I may wind up being the best book I read all year. Joe Hill came right out of the gate with a terrific novel in Heart Shaped Box, and he just keeps on getting better. From 20th Century Ghosts to Locke and Key, he never fails to find something new in genre fiction, and The Fireman is just another in what will hopefully be a long line of brilliant, brilliant novels.
(I know I made a Shining reference in there, but you can forgive me that one at least, right?)
Any Cop?: Read it. It’s at least as good as Heart Shaped Box and NO54R2; it might even be better than them.
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- June 13, 2016 / 9:00 am