Review: The Fireman, by Joe Hill
A plague is sweeping humanity, and the world is ending. People are waking to find “Dragonscale” scribed in odd designs on their skin. A few weeks later, they burst into flames. It’s happening in hospitals. One person ignites, and a chain reaction ensues. Dozens of infected burst into flames all at once, and the hospital is history. Cities burn. Forests are laid to waste.
Harper is a nurse, who fancies herself a modern day Mary Poppins. She cheers the infected with quips about spoonfuls of sugar and chimney songs. Until her hospital goes up in flames.
The story really takes a step back from the international calamity to focus on Harper and her relationship with her husband, Jakob. He rescues her from the hospital. They make love as you can only do when the world is ending around you, and make a pact. If they were ever to be infected, they would end their lives together before it could take them.
Blissfully in love and unemployed, they carry on despite the apocalypse. That is, until Harper learns she’s pregnant. Almost simultaneously, threads of dragonscale loop around her thighs.
A side of Jakob she’s never seen before emerges, and she has to cope with an abusive, controlling, and absolutely hateful man. The pregnancy changes everything for Harper, and he becomes increasingly unhinged when it becomes clear she’s not going to go along with their suicidal pact.
Spontaneously combusting humans be damned. The uncertainty and oppression Harper must endure to this man who, until very recently was declaring his undying love to her, was some of the most riveting drama I’ve ever read.
Sadly, this did not last. When the novel’s namesake, The Fireman, shows up to save the day, the book goes alarmingly downhill.
Harper is whisked away to a camp of survivors who embrace the dragonscale and manage to avoid bursting into flames. They are protected by The Fireman, who is able to ignite at will and control the flames, using them as a weapon. The drama with Jakob is mostly forgotten, and Harper becomes lost in small town politics. They live in ever fear of a vigilante group called The Cremation Crew, who hunt down and murder the infected. But mostly what you’re going to be reading about here are people putting rocks in their mouths. I’m not kidding. The Fireman rarely appears, and isn’t near as exciting or otherworldly as promised to be.
Which is a consistent problem through the book, and likely the only consistent thing about it. Joe Hill continually makes promises that, after a bit of meandering, ultimately fizzle out. Jakob, The Marlboro Man, Martha Quinn, The Fireman… none of them are forgotten, but when their moment finally comes around, the payoff just isn’t there.
Not a single scene matches those initial moments between Harper and Jakob as the world literally goes up in flames around them. I spent the rest of the book longing just to go back and reread the first five chapters.
Hill faced a similar problem in Heart-Shaped Box. He writes incredibly strong openings, but tends to wander around lost before remembering to get to it already. He rushes his payoffs. It comes as no surprise that my favorite work of his is a short-story collection (which, by the way, seriously blew my god damned mind.).
Let’s talk about inconsistencies.
I had a serious problem with the characters in this book, Harper in particular.
Her most believable moments were in the opening. She has fantasies about being Mary Poppins, nurtures the infected in a hospital, and submissively abides by her mentally abusive husband at home. The Fireman appears, and all bets on this character are off.
After this, she randomly curses. A chapter later, she’s chiding someone for having a “potty mouth”. Two pages later, she calls someone a bitch. Then she’s back to spoonfuls of sugar. Next chapter, she’s talking about The Rolling Stones. Mick Jagger. Thinking back on when she vacuumed in her underwear, singing along with Bruce Springsteen. And fuck that bitch who made me put a rock in my mouth.
Who the hell is this woman? Did I mention she’s in her twenties? I could barely tell you anything about these artists, and I’m hitting my thirties.
The music references were both overdone and unbelievable. These are not artists Harper would like, these are artists Joe Hill likes. Her character was so all over the place, I had difficulty pegging where he was going with her arc. Was the idea to turn her from a Disney loving girl to a cursing, sex crazed 80’s rock fiend? Is he implying that cursing and talking openly about sex is growth from quoting Disney movies and trying to help people? Even if the Mary Poppins thing is a bit naive, that rings a bit offensive to me.
The rest of the characters aren’t as wild in their progression, but they do tend toward the forgettable. Jakob devolves into a maniac plow truck that practically cackles through the front grille, complete with the cheesy straight-to-television Stephen King adaptation soundtrack. Renee was a favorite in the opening, but blended in with the wallpaper before long. Allie had her time in the spotlight, but after redemption was just another person in line as they trekked the country. I can’t even remember The Fireman’s actual name.
It’s so disappointing. The premise is incredible, and it had such a strong start. He is an incredible writer, if the Quotables section of this review is anything to go by. But the lack of consistency in character pulled me out of the story so often I couldn’t abide the slogging pace. By the time it got to the point, I was just relieved to get on with another book.
There is a lot of talk about the amount of Stephen King references that are made. Most of these were lost on me, but I can say this novel felt more like a King novel than any of Hill’s other works. What’s worse, is it honed in on the aspects of King that initially turned me off to him – forgettable, inconsistent characters, unnecessary lulls, and over-reference to pop culture that are clearly formed more around the author than character.
I know Hill can do better. 20th Century Ghosts proved that. I just can’t wait for the novel that makes me a fan of his long-form.
You don’t want to start A Game of Thrones when you might catch fire all of a sudden. There’s something horribly unfair about dying in the middle of a good story, before you have a chance to see how it all comes out. Of course, I suppose everyone always dies in the middle of a good story, in a sense. Your own story. Or the story of your children. Or your grandchildren. Death is a raw deal for narrative junkies.
To live for others was to live fully; to live only for yourself, a cold kind of death. The sugar was sweeter when you gave it to someone else to taste.
In her experience it was very difficult to offer a man affection and kindness without giving him the impression you were also offering a lay.
The problem with role models is they teach you roles.
Most people have no idea how much of themselves they store off-site. Your personality is not just a matter of what you know about yourself, but what others know about you. You are one person with your mother, and another with your lover, and yet another with your child. Those other people create you—finish you—as much as you create you. When you’re gone, the ones you’ve left behind get to keep the same part of you they always had.
I spend more time thinking about the things I wish we had done than I do thinking about the things we did do. It was like we opened the perfect bottle of wine and each shared a sip . . . and then a clumsy waiter knocked the bottle to the floor before we got to have any more.
The Fireman starts hot, but fizzles out before the journey’s end. While readable (I did finish it), inconsistencies in character highlight the pacing issues. There is simply no reason to linger on characters who are downright unbelievable.
I’m certain die-hard Hill fans will eat this right up, but as a casual fan, I don’t think the near-800 page commitment is worth it. For anyone but the casual fan, I recommend waiting for the upcoming film adaptation. At least there is hope that another writer can smooth out the characters and cut out some filler.
It feels more like Stephen King’s Son’s novel than anything else Joe Hill has done. I hope he finds his own voice and crafts a more consistent journey in the future, but this novel isn’t the one.
- Good world building.
- Fantastic opening, glimpsing what could have been for character development.
- Despite my qualms, the ending moved me.
- Character development spirals out of control and becomes unbelievable.
- Pace is uneven. Sometimes riveting, but mostly a slog.