The Fireman by Joe Hill

The Fireman

Rating: ★★★★★

A new virus, Draco Incendia Trychophyton, is sweeping the globe.  No one knows where it came from, how it spreads or how to cure it.  But, once the tell-tale black and gold markings begin to appear on your body, your days are numbered, because once infected, it causes the host to spontaneously combust.

Harper Grayson is a school nurse – and she sees her first combustion in the school playground.  Soon after, as society grinds to a halt and the schools begin to shut down, she volunteers at the local hospital, wanting to help in any way she can, and hoping that the biohazard suits offer sufficient protection.

When Harper finds the intricate, almost tattoo like markings on her skin, her husband, Jakob, believes it is inevitable that he is also infected.  And he would rather take his own life, and Harper’s, rather than waiting to burst into flames.  Yet Harper has also discovered that she is pregnant, and wants to carry the child to term.

When Harper is forced to escape from the increasingly unhinged Jakob, she falls in with a camp of fellow Dragonscale (as it’s become known in common parlance) sufferers.  Based in Camp Wyndham – an old summer camp – they have found a way, if not to cure the Dragonscale, but to prevent the seemingly inevitable combustion.  This group includes the eponymous Fireman – someone who has gone a step further than preventing combustion; someone who is able to use the fire at will, for protection, or as a weapon if needed.

And so Harper begins a new chapter in her life as the world around her, everything she’s grown up with, comes to an end.

Whilst this may seem like a long synopsis, it barely scrapes the surface of what happens in this great tome of a novel.  The Fireman is epic in both scope and size, and yet there wasn’t any point where I felt that it could have been cut down or where the story dragged.  The Fireman was fast-paced throughout, and there was always something happening.  For me, it was a novel where I always wanted to read ‘just one more chapter’ – I was desperate to find out what happened next.

I think the telling the story from the point of view of the afflicted is a relatively rare one – it’s usually the perspective of the healthy, or of the survivors, that the reader is presented with as they seek to rebuild society, or to find a cure, usually due to someone they know having been infected.  So having my sympathy aligned to the Dragonscale sufferers was a refreshing change, yet one that works brilliantly.  For them, it’s not about looking for a cure – it’s about survival, and making the best of their situation, whether that’s preventing combustion, or avoiding the vigilante groups that have inevitably sprung up in the collapse of social order.

The Fireman presents a huge cast of characters, but all the main players have a detailed backstory that adds to the novel.  I particularly loved the development of Harper throughout the novel.  Initially a seemingly timid young woman, she soon developed some backbone as the events in the novel and the need to protect her unborn child force her to make some difficult choices.

I found the dynamics of the group at Camp Wyndham to be fascinating, and I loved the parallels between those who run the camp and the vigilante groups who have taken it upon themselves to cleanse the world of the infected.  Whilst their objectives are different, for both groups it’s a case of seemingly good intentions leading to chaos, and to violent, often atrocious, acts being committed.

The Fireman is a thoroughly brilliant novel, and I loved every page of it.  Dotted throughout with literary references (I particularly liked the tribute to Margaret Atwood) and little snatches of humour, this is a wonderfully complex novel that will appeal to fans of The Passage.

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