Book Review: The Fireman, Joe Hill (2016)

May 16th, 2016 7:00 am by Kelly Garbato

Joe Hill strikes again!

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through Edelweiss. Trigger warning for racist/sexist language, violence, and sexual assault.)

It was them making the light. They were all of them tattooed with loops and whorls of Dragonscale, which glowed like fluorescent paint under a black light, hallucinatory hues of cherry wine and blowtorch blue. When they opened their mouths to sing, Harper glimpsed light painting the insides of their throats, as if each of them were a kettle filled with embers. […]

Harper felt she had never seen anything so frightening or beautiful.

“You know what the kids say.”
“I have no idea what the kids say. What do they say?”
“She came back from the eighties to save mankind. Martha Quinn is our only hope.”

The hens are clucking. Harper thought it would be a toss-up, which term for women she hated more: bitch or hen. A hen was something you kept in a cage, and her sole worth was in her eggs. A bitch, at least, had teeth.

The year is 2018-ish (if Martha Quinn’s approximate age is a reliable guidepost), and the world is on fire. A fungus called Draco incendia trychophyton – Dragonscale in lay terms, ‘scale for short – is making the rounds, leaving ashes and chaos in its wake. Once it finds a host, the spore spreads and propagates, infiltrating its victim’s blood, tissue, and organs – including the brain, with which it forms an intimate bond. The first sign of infection is the strangely beautiful markings it leaves on its host’s skin – dark tattoos that shimmer with flecks of gold.

The ‘scale runs hotter than the human body, and sufferers live in constant fear of going up in flames:

In the hospital, the infected were divided into two groups: “symptomatic normals” and “smolderers.” Smolderers smoked on and off, always ready to ignite. Smoke curled from their hair, from their nostrils, and their eyes streamed with water. The stripes on their bodies got so hot they could melt latex gloves. They left char marks on their hospital johnnies, on their beds. They were dangerous, too. Understandably, perhaps, the smolderers were always wavering on the edge of hysteria. […]

The rest of the patients were marked with ’scale, but were otherwise physically and emotionally normal, right until the moment they incinerated themselves.

Dragonscale is particularly attuned to the presence of the stress hormone cortisol. Extreme fear or anxiety creates a hostile environment for the ‘scale – causing it to set its home ablaze and take to the winds in search of more serene pastures.

Her days as a school nurse behind her (thanks apocalypse!), Harper Willowes is volunteering as a nurse at Portsmouth Hospital when the building goes up in flames. It started in the cafeteria, when one smolderer went up, thus setting off a chain reaction of fear and smoke and fire. With nothing left to do, she returns home, to her husband Jakob and an unfulfilling marriage that she dare not abandon since it’s all she has left to cling to. Within a few months, Harper discovers that she’s pregnant. Just one week later, she spots the first ribbon of Dragonscale kissing her leg.

Jakob leaves home with the promise to return in two months. If he’s sick too, they’ll carry out that suicide pact they (read: he) agreed upon during the first days of the outbreak. If not, he’ll be there for Harper while she kills herself.

Only Harper doesn’t want to die – at least, not until she has safely delivered her baby. With the help of a mysterious, aloof Brit known as the Fireman, Harper finds her way to Camp Wyndham, a sanctuary for a hundred-odd infected refugees. Led by the kindly “Father” Tom Storey, the group has managed to evade the Quarantine Patrols and Cremation Crews for months. Even more impressive, they’ve found a way to “make friends” with Dragonscale – by singing to it. If it reacts negatively to fear, oxytocin is downright euphoric for host and spore alike. Yet there’s a dangerous undercurrent this “cure” – and the cult-like following cultivated by Carol Storey among her “flock.”

Oh, and Martha Quinn has her own island! Timber Wolf Island, rechristened Free Wolf Island, off the coast of Maine. They have clean beds and a pizza parlor and yes, she takes requests. All the infected are welcome – as long as they can find their own way through a hostile landscape. Or at least that’s the rumor.

This is my third Joe Hill book, after NOS4A2 and Horns, and he’s quickly becoming one of my all-time favorite authors, not far behind Margaret Atwood and Octavia Butler. The Fireman is everything I’ve come to expect from Hill: smart, witty, and scary AF; with nuanced characters and a compelling, twisty-turny plot; and a welcome dose of social (justice) commentary – not to mention some really fun and unexpected pop culture references. (I mean, Martha Quinn? Did anyone see that coming?)

The Fireman most reminds me of Horns, for reasons both obvious and not. If you’ve already read Horns, the similar imagery – fire, flames, the devil – will jump right out at you. But the structure of each novel evokes the other, with multiple acts and stories that seem to go on and on – in the best way possible, of course. Whereas in Horns Hill reimagines the Bible, casting Lucifer as a misunderstood, (somewhat) unfairly vilified anti-hero (in the way I’d hoped Supernatural would), here he sets his gaze on cults: the danger of groupthink, mass hysteria and mob mentality, the anonymity of performing violence en masse. The potential for a community to do harm as well as good. Some of the most frightening and compelling scenes take place at Camp Wyndham, after it’s gone to hell.

Initially, the synopsis made me more than a little nervous. There’s a nasty little trend in pop culture – and our society as a whole – of treating the lives of pregnant women as more valuable and worthy of protection (and policing) than their non-pregnant counterparts. As though a woman’s worth rests in her womb, and those carrying “precious cargo” (I’m with Harper: vom!) must be treated like invalids. Most recently, I rolled my eyes at this trope on The Walking Dead: when Glenn was missing and Maggie decided against going after him, on account of he wouldn’t want anything to happen to their baby. I guess she’s just expendable and/or an infant herself then? Yuck.

So given Harper’s determination to live long enough to deliver her baby – which, (and I can’t believe I’m saying this, because the man is awful; THE WORST) in Jakob’s defense, is just an unthinking, unfeeling clump of cells when she contracts the ‘scale – yeah, I was worried where the story might go. But if his previous novels are reliable indicators, Hill’s a pretty solid feminist ally, and I had faith that he’d do right by Harper and all the women rooting for her. And I was not disappointed!

Harper makes for a really interesting, engaging hero – stubborn and steadfast, but not without her flaws. We see her grow from an extension of Jakob into her own person; the no-nonsense go-getter that, up until the ‘scale, she compartmentalized into Nurse Willowes. I especially loved her contentious relationship with Ben Patchett, the prim and stodgy former cop who takes a shining to her. Imagining Harper’s Julie Andrews-esque character throwing the f-bomb with abandon just to get a rise out of him – never mind the why – will always bring a smile to my face.

Nick and Allie, John, Renée, Tom, Don – it was a pleasure to get to know them all. Even the more insidious characters are as fascinating as they are repulsive (Jakob in particular. Fedora aside, the guy’s pretty much an MRA horcrux.) The only person I couldn’t quite get a handle on was Carol, though I suspect that’s less to do with Hill’s writing than the vast chasm that separates us.

There’s so much to love here, I couldn’t possibly touch upon it all. (I suspect I’ll be plucking new things from my subconscious for weeks to come.)

But here are a few of my favorite things. (Julie Andrews FTW!)

* Hill’s many, varied depictions of female relationships, whether supportive or poisonous. I love how the old girlfriend is cool with the new.

* The many Easter Eggs: the steps to a treehouse that no longer exists outside of Harper’s home; when Nick calls the processing center Christmasland instead of the North Pole; the fake ballgame starring, among others, Tom Gordon.

* The tiny acts of kindness that help to offset (ever so slightly) all the awfulness in this world.

* All the pop culture references: Harry Potter, which probably comes in second only to Mary Poppins; J.K. Rowling, a sort of Oskar Schindler for the ‘scale set, whose death is celebrated by Christian fundamentalists; Maggie Atwood, the fishing trawler that carries the survivors on the final leg of their trip (though given how that went, I’m not sure whether this should be considered a compliment so much as a homage); and of course the inestimable Martha Quinn, ’80s pop star and Dragonscale maven.

* Hill’s myriad digs at mainstream media, from “news” reporters grossly exaggerating the number of dead in a massacre of holdouts, to CNN’s initial coverage of the epidemic: “FOX said the Dragon had been set loose by ISIS, using spores that had been invented by the Russians in the 1980s. MSNBC said sources indicated the ’scale might’ve been created by engineers at Halliburton and stolen by culty Christian types fixated on the Book of Revelation. CNN reported both sides.”

The only part I didn’t love was the ending, which is marginally less hopeful than expected. Which is to say that I expected bleakness, but c’mon! The story’s already got such a crazy high body count that it seems especially unfair to drag this last casualty some four hundred miles only to kill zher. But we all know how much authors love to off their MCs – and besides, I guess the ending does have a final grim poetry to it. In any case, I wasn’t upset enough to dock the book so much as a half a star; it’s just so fack’n great overall.

I’d say that it’s unputdownable, but at 608 pages (768? why are Goodreads and Amazon giving me such wildly different counts?), you’re going to have to extricate yourself some time. It will hurt, and the last and final time will hit you right in the feels, like a flaming hatchet to the heart.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

 

Comments (May contain spoilers!)

Diversity: Yes. Nine-year-old Nick Storey is deaf and speaks primarily in sign language; he also uses pen and paper to communicate more complicated ideas, or with those who cannot sign. Of the 100+ refugees at Camp Wyndham, only a few close friends and family members know how to sign. (Among them is John Rookwood, aka the Fireman, who learned as a child because his mother was deaf.) Nick’s disability sets him apart from most of the other people in camp; he’s often isolated, ostracized, or ignored completely. No one even suspects that he may be the thief in the girls’ dorm room, so invisible is he. Nor does anyone think to ask him about the thefts, an oversight that complicates a series of otherwise simple misunderstandings. However, Nick’s disability also comes with a pretty epic upside: because he’s grown up thinking in pictures and colors and emotions, he has a unique, innate ability to connect with – and master – the Dragonscale. Only when John and Harper adopt Nick’s way of seeing the world can they use it as well.

Nick’s mother Sarah became pregnant with Allie when she was just seventeen. The father was a Lithuanian pianist – and her teacher. Sarah’s father Tom kicked her out of the house and the two remained estranged until after the birth of Nick. When Nick was born deaf, his father suggested putting the boy up for adoption. Sarah promptly kicked her husband out, after which time he began stalking her, and even broke into their house on one occasion. He kidnapped Allie and was caught trying to enter Canada with his daughter in tow. While he was out on bail, he killed himself.

Renée Gilmonton is a chubby, forty-something black woman with greying cornrows and a kind, caring disposition. In her former life, she volunteered at the local prison, leading a book club for the inmates. She and Gilbert Cline, an escaped con/car thief, share a brief (interracial) romance. She is is Harper’s first introduction to the “Bright”; Renée unexpectedly lights up while reading to children in quarantine at Portsmouth Hospital.

Michael Lindqvist tried to kill himself after his sisters died of Dragonscale.

Carol Storey broke off her engagement to a theological student after she discovered that he was gay.

Animal-friendly elements: Renée reunites with her cat a year after releasing him – but Jakob murders the hapless feline not long after.

 

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