The Fireman by Joe Hill

This book is something special.

Let’s start with some stats, shall we?

Books I’ve shelved on Goodreads: 617

Books that have wound up on my favourites shelf: 18

Books that kept me up all night: 10

Books that made me cry: 3

Books that left me bereft and at sea, listening to Dire Straits’ “Romeo and Juliet” on loop: 1

And yes, the common factor is The Fireman. I can already tell I’m going to struggle to review this one. It’s just magnificent.

I’m an absolute sucker for a good apocalypse. If memory serves, that interest was piqued around eight years ago, after reading Cell by Stephen King. (Yes, it’s damn hard to review any Joe Hill book without mentioning his pa. I hope Mr. Hill doesn’t mind too much.) Since then, I’ve read and loved books including Max Brooks’ World War Z, The Walking Dead series by Robert Kirkman, Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, and recent standouts The Girl With All the Gifts by M.R. Carey and The Three by Sarah Lotz. (And of course The Stand. Above all The Stand. But we’ll come back to that.)

The Fireman is an absolute stunner of an apocalypse tale. Here, the world goes to hell in a handbasket not with a whimper but a literal bang, as spontaneous human combustion sweeps the globe. A lovely little spore by the name of Dragonscale brands its victims with dark, script-like marks across their skin. Soon, the afflicted begin to smoke and sizzle, and before long whole swathes of the country are aflame.

For the first section of the book we follow our heroine Harper Grayson, from her first sighting of an afflicted burner, through her months-long volunteer work in a full-to-bursting hospital, until its almost inevitable explosion. Harper is an absolute gem. Calm under pressure, with a childish streak that still adores Mary Poppins, likens the people she meets to fictional characters, and has a real attachment to Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings. Right from the off, I was always going to love Harper.

Things change with Harper’s own infection. The book charts her poorly timed pregnancy, the swift breakdown of her marriage, and Harper’s search for safety and security in a world still burning to ashes. I enjoyed the first act of the book so much that I was apprehensive to move on from it, feeling that surely the breakdown of society is the meatiest part of any apocalypse story, and hesitant that any aftermath could live up to it. I’m happy to say that on that score I was entirely wrong.

And now for the inevitable comparison to The Stand. I understand why reviewers are going to compare and contrast the two, I really do. They’re both epic-length survival stories, populated by a huge cast of characters, and by father and son! It would almost be weird if people weren’t comparing them. For me though, The Stand was a black and white morality tale. The good became better, the bad got worse, and it all came to a head in a left-field religious stand-off. I love that book dearly, but The Fireman is a beast of a different nature. There are many more shades of grey, for one. Our survivors aren’t divided on lines of pure wholesome souls and moustache twirling villains – there’s more subtlety than that. And while a lot of The Stand is about the journey, The Fireman concerns itself more with the destination. (In many respects, a much more apt comparison would be with Atwood’s Year of the Flood, a novel tracking a cult at the end of the world.)

One of the most unexpected elements of the story was how hard and fast I fell for the romance between Harper and our titular Fireman. John Rookwood is an absolute delight – a man who can control and cast flame at will, is more than a little bit in love with his own mythology, and is heavily burdened by the recent past. He’s absent for a large part of the beginning of the book, but that served to make me anticipate his appearances all the more. I rarely feel inordinately invested in fictional romances, but every fibre of my being was holding out for a happy ending for these two crazy kids. At one point I had to physically leave the house to stop myself turning ahead to the ending.

The Fireman far and away surpassed the other Joe Hill books I’ve read. I wasn’t overly enamored with NOS4R2, but I dug Heart-Shaped Box and Locke & Key. I was expecting another book of the same ilk – a solidly enjoyable story that I would like if not love and quickly move on from. Well, I’m sat here twelve hours on from finishing The Fireman and I’m just plain not ready to start another story. This one needs time to settle. I’m certain I’ll revisit it in future, and I’m more excited than ever to see where Hill goes next.

Sincere thanks to Orion and NetGalley for providing a free copy in exchange for an honest review.

[Read from 26-28 August 2016]

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