Sunday, July 17, 2016

The Fireman by Joe Hill

The Fireman is set in a dystopian world where a fungus commonly known as Dragonscale that can cause people to literally go up in flames has infected a large portion of the population and caused out-of-control wildfires, disruption of services like electricity, and a divided society in which some of the healthy are determined to exterminate the infected to prevent further spread of the disease.

Harper is a nurse who volunteers to work at a hospital, helping with the outbreak. When she becomes infected, her husband Jakob presumes he's infected, too, and says he wants to go through with "our plan" (really, his plan) to commit suicide. Harper escapes with the help of John, also known as "The Fireman". John has figured out a way to not only live with the infection but use it to his advantage. He takes her to a campsite where a community of the infected — who have learned to live with Dragonscale and keep it from consuming them — are hiding from the Cremation Crews killing their kind. Jakob becomes one of the killers and he is determined to kill his pregnant wife. Harper is equally determined to survive long enough to give her child a chance.

OK, the good and the bad. I liked Harper and John, although John spends most of his time alone on a small nearby island, so the titles seems a wee bit off. Eventually, he becomes more prominent but the story is really Harper's. However, the story is about a disease that sets people on fire, so that falls into the "eh, whatever" category.

As usual, Hill goes all-out with popular culture references, using favorite music, a Dr. Who reference ("Allons-y!"), quotes from various books and allusions to them, etc. I'm not all that familiar with Stephen King's work but apparently there are some parallels to his father's work, as well. I felt like he went way overboard on the pop culture references; it got a little too cutesy and I found it annoying, particularly the music and Harper's bizarre love of Mary Poppins. That was a negative.

The characterization was very good but not quite as deep as it has been in previous books. In NOS4A2, there was no question who was evil and who you were rooting for. I found that a little harder to pinpoint in The Fireman, possibly because there are so many characters. Some just didn't stick; there were hints about at least one having darker motives; one or two became surprise baddies.

And, the violence . . .  this nearly did me in. I am pretty much convinced that I'm not going to read future books by Joe Hill. Much of the book is palatable and even a bit plodding as it focuses on camp life with just a few dangerous missions. But, once it became violent, it was relentless and vicious. I prefer to avoid images that lead to nightmares and this was nightmare-inducing stuff. Also, there was a cat-murder scene. I'm a cat lover; I can do without that kind of horror.

The best thing about the book is the pacing. It took a while for me to get into the book, possibly because I was suffering from jetlag, but even when I couldn't keep my eyes open I was aware that it was well-paced. The pages really flew, once I got past the fatigue. High marks for excellent packing.

The storyline itself is also one that deserves acclaim for its uniqueness. In a book world saturated with dystopian tales, Hill really came up with something totally his own.

Overall, The Fireman is not my favorite by Hill (the short stories in 20th Century Ghosts still are his most impressive work, in my humble opinion) and yet I liked it better than NOS4A2 because there are breaks between the intense scenes; I appreciated the early focus on characterization and the fact that there was less violence. Once it became violent, though, it was just a bit too much for this reader.

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