by Joe Hill
“These days, I’m not sure it’s ever a good idea to leave anything important for tomorrow.”
An epidemic of spontaneous human combustion is sweeping the world, caused by a disease known as Dragonscale which is accompanied by black and gold markers on the skin. While spread of the disease isn’t fully understood, it’s considered communicable by physical contact, so the visibly infected are being separated from the uninfected, forcefully and brutally, to minimize the risk to the healthy.
Our main character Harper becomes infected. Over the course of breaking out in the disease she realizes the true nature of her deranged husband and is led to a secret company of around 200 infected people who have banded together to support each other and evade the roving death squads. This is where most of the book takes place, and the community has its own problems as social constructs are built and dismantled in a bunker-like existence. John, also known as The Fireman, has a heightened ability to control fire and helps rescue people from the squads and deliver them to the underground group, who has found a method of working with the disease and avoiding combustion like everyone else who contracts it.
The Fireman is a massive book, clocking in at around 225,000 words. Despite its size, it’s a straightforward, fast-paced narrative with short, 5 minute chapters pinging quickly most of the way through. And this is actually one of the issues with the work.
The track and field 800 meter race is an oddity of physical exertion, and some meets don’t host this race at all. It’s far too long for a sprint. Even the 400 meter can be handled at top speed for someone in great shape, but no one can sprint 800 meters. On the other hand, the 800 is too short to adopt the steady, distance-runner pace. So the race becomes especially brutal even though it’s not nearly as long as other events.
In some ways this book resembles the 800. It has a very good, page-turning pace, but it’s difficult to maintain over such a massive block of text, and the requirements on the reader can sometimes seem high. Most massive books are ponderously thought-provoking and simmer gently, whereas this is one long stretch of tightly packed events. The story and pace may be better suited to a one sitting read, but very few of us could pull that off over a quarter of a million words.
Multiple shots are fired at Ayn Rand, a favorite pastime of the author. Not that taking shots is a problem; admittedly, her characters are self-righteous. But here Mr. Hill is guilty of the same thing with his characters, so it’s interesting Miss Rand is in his cross-hairs. In a different land, in another time, if these two had met as young adults they might initially have been at each others’ throats and then ended up married six months later.
A lot of people have criticized this work as complete, 1-star garbage. And that’s OK, but sometimes people are strange. It’s a very capable story, moves along much quicker than other books its size, and has numerous scenes of the fantastic as you might expect when considering controlling fire.
A lot more people have praised the book as a towering, 5-star masterpiece, and that’s OK too, but sometimes people are strange. And that’s a good thing–it takes all types. The book is not really like Stephen King’s The Stand with which it is frequently compared. It does pay homage to the work, though, so fans of his father’s book will see a lot of nods. The Fireman himself is a great, flawed character, always a little on the outside, and this helps us sympathize with him. Harper was fine as a character, but it’s more difficult to get fully in her corner.
It’s easy to speak of some of the less desirable aspects of the work, probably because many people are praising it so highly. And that’s great! More power to the author. Mr. Hill has previously revealed himself as a brilliant fantasist, shining examples coming from a couple of short stories in his collection 20th Century Ghosts, and he absolutely brings some of that power to bear here. With everything said and done and all criticisms aside, The Fireman is a good book, and is recommended.
“Silence is God’s final advantage.”