I’d been recommended this a while ago so it was with some trepidation and excitement that I approached this book. This was my first experience with Joe Hill’s fiction and I found it held up its own – certainly, the fact the author is Stephen King’s son didn’t sway me. The book stood up fine on its own.
The Fireman tells the story of Harper Grayson, a nurse at a time when a mysterious, and deadly, spore named Dragonscale that literally causes the afflicted to spontaneously combust. Naturally, in the line of Harper’s work she contracts the disease and is forced to relocate to a nearby camp of other infected.
First of all, the characters were really well fleshed out. Harper is a sympathetic character that I related with; interestingly, her husband, Jakob, deals less successfully with her contracting the Dragonscale, and their paths quickly diverge; she flees to Camp Wyndham while Jakob, disgusted by the disease that has befallen his wife, joins one of the roaming vigilante Cremation Crews who take it upon themselves to search out and purge what’s left of America of the infected.
While this is happening, the book quickly delves the reader into life at Camp Wyndham, which was ostensibly set up as a safe refuge for the infected but, like the wider world outside the camp, society begins to fall apart as people’s natural suspicions seem to take over. The slow degeneracy of the camp is quite compelling to read; I found myself wanting to read on, to find out what happens to these characters in the camp that become gradually more unpeeled and their motivations revealed. Indeed, Harper herself becomes somewhat ostracised inside the camp – she is sceptical of the quasi-religious nature of the camp, where singing brings about an euphoric trance-like state known as The Bright – plus she quickly develops an allegiance to The Fireman, an outsider who has mysterious abilities with his Dragonscale whose relationship with Camp Wyndham is at arms-length at best.
I enjoyed the bleak depiction of the horrors that a disease like Dragonscale would bring – the inherent widespread societal collapse is beautifully put across with some haunting but vivid imagery. Entire states literally seem to go up in smoke and the tranquillity of what was once thought to be normality is quickly shattered. Early on there’s a depiction of the horror of the Dragonscale outbreak on TV in Toronto, which seems so distant yet the outbreak quickly envelops not only the continental USA but the world in which the characters reside. Indeed, the main focus of the book is the collapse of society at Camp Wyndham, but that reflects and is analogous to what’s happening in the wider world.
As events transpire the reader, too, learns both of Camp Wyndham’s unpleasant past and the history of the Dragonscale itself. I had some initial concerns that the Dragonscale affliction was a bit witches-and-wizards but the more I learned through the gradual unpicking of the backstory the more I found myself at ease with it. And as the book shifts toward the finale, some brilliantly-written and tense confrontations lead to a bittersweet but believable ending – as is the case with a lot of books that deal with society-destroying events, there isn’t room or the plausibility to wrap things up in a nice package; but The Fireman wraps them up in a believable package that kept me thinking for a good while after I finished the book.
There’s some subtle but powerful themes at work – the zealous nature of the Cremation Crews bringing to mind the ugly worst confrontations of the US civil rights movement and the empowerment that is given to supremacist groups. The infected almost become an underclass – able to live with their affliction as they learn more about its dynamics – rushing to escape from the zealots that won’t entertain their very survival.
Overall though, The Fireman was a compelling, thrilling and thought-provoking read. Definitely pick it up!