After delighting growing fans with a classic ghost story in Heart-Shaped Box and a tale of terrifying horror in NOS4A2, in his latest tome, weighing in at 768 pages, Joe Hill presents his world on the edge of apocalypse. No one really knows how or where it started, but wildfires are tearing through the country and they’re being cause by people. Now, when I say “people,” I literally mean people are bursting into flame and starting these fires.
Doctors call it Draco Incendia Trychophyton, but everyone else refers to it as Dragonscale. It’s a highly contagious spore, and you know you’ve got it when you find these lustrous black and gold bands on your body. It’s unknown what happens in between getting the scale and spontaneously combusting, but there are a lot of people burning up, and society is starting to fall apart. There are roving gangs looking to put an end to anyone with the Dragonscale, to prevent it spreading further. Meanwhile, the government says it’s working on a cure, but really has no idea what it’s doing. Things escalate and continue to get worse and worse.
Our story focuses on Harper Grayson, a talented and compassionate nurse who cares greatly for others and is working her butt off with the current crisis. Her husband, Jacob, barely sees her and doesn’t really get why she’s trying to save all these people with Dragonscale. When Harper contracts the spore, he goes off the deep end mentally, and it turns into a very different relationship. Harper doesn’t need convincing and tries to get the heck out of dodge, but Jacob has other plans. Harper makes it out of the house, but the maniac formerly known as her husband, is after her. That’s when the tall drink of water with a British accent known as The Fireman comes to save the day.
Harper joins a commune where they have apparently mastered the power of Dragonscale. By joining together and singing, they are able to control the incendiary ferocity of the disease and keep themselves alive and well. But, in any group fighting to survive, tensions are strained, and stress is at an all-time high and things turn into a kind of Lord of the Flies situation. But there is a rumor that has become legend of an island off the coast of Maine where they are taking in people with Dragonscale, where they can live a nice, normal life without prejudice or persecution.
The Fireman is a wonderfully original tale that takes a few elements like plague and fire and churns them into a compelling story. As with all stories of an apocalyptic nature, it is ultimately about the choices and decisions that people make to survive. Hill’s characters are varied and interesting and definitely give the novel and realistic feel. The middle of the book lags a little and, overall, could have had some pages editorially excised, as the downturn of the commune gets pretty predicable and uninspiring. But the last third of the book is nonstop action, and, even though Joe Hill seems to suffer from his dad’s problem of executing a good ending for the book, The Fireman is a fun escape from you mundane life into a world of fire and fighting and people who give a damn.