The Fireman

Posted: August 26, 2017 in Book reviews, Post-Apocalyptic
Tags: ,

By Joe Hill

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In the near future mankind is ravaged by a spore known technically as Draco Incendia Trychophyton but more colloquially as Dragonscale, or merely The Scale. Once infected victims display black and gold markings on their skin that look like beautiful tattoos but, sooner or later, the disease causes the victim to spontaneously combust, so as well as death by disease, large scale fires become a fact of life.

School nurse Harper has been infected. She and her husband, Jakob, had discussed what to do if they became infected, and had considered mutual suicide, the trouble is, since that discussion Harper has discovered she’s pregnant, and now she doesn’t want to die, instead she wants to try and bring her baby to term before the Dragonscale gets her, much to Jakob’s chagrin.

Luckily help is at hand from The Fireman, a mysterious stranger who leads Harper to a refuge where a group of the infected have discovered a way to control the Dragonscale. What initially appears to be a paradise might soon descend into something more akin to hell on earth, and Harper and her newfound allies will have to fight many battles, against friend as well as foe, if they’re to survive.

 

Do you watch The Walking Dead? It’s ok if you don’t, this isn’t a mammoth spoiler. Anyway, in the second season of The Walking Dead the survivors chance upon a small farm and stay there…and stay there…and stay there…and, well, not a great deal happens. The Fireman is a bit like season 2 of The Walking Dead.

Hill’s central conceit is a great one. The Dragonscale is a wonderful creation, and the first section of the book where Hill details the spread of the disease and the gradual disintegration of civilisation is wonderfully evocative.

The trouble begins when the Fireman takes Harper to Camp Wyndham (I see what you did there, Joe). Given the size of the book (close to 800 pages) I was expecting some kind of sprawling epic where Harper and the Fireman have to cross a barren wasteland to find safety, and whilst this does happen, eventually, you have to wait until almost the end before this odyssey begins. In the interim what you’re faced with is 300+ pages dedicated to the folk at Camp Wyndham. Suddenly a book about the end of the world turns into something smaller scale, with some of the group eager to implement a cult style leadership.

Now that’s fine, and it isn’t like small groups falling apart isn’t a staple of the post-apocalyptic genre. I mean, Joe’s dad has handled this kind of subject before, in the Stand or Under the Dome, or the novella The Mist.

You might think it unfair to compare a man who’s gone out of his way to escape his father’s shadow with that father, but given this book is so clearly influenced by King’s work, and given in his introduction Joe admits shamelessly stealing his dad’s ideas, I think it’s a fair thing to do (in fact it was only when I read other reviews after finishing the book that I realised just how many Stephen King Easter eggs there are in the book).

The Stand is a similarly doorstep sized hunk of a book, but in that King provides a large cast of characters, both good and bad, and tells the story from multiple viewpoints. By contrast 99.9% of the Fireman is told from Harper’s POV, which means Hill has to pull all kinds of literary contortions in order to keep her in the mix, or have stuff happen off camera. As a result none of the other characters really come alive because we rarely get inside their heads. In particular the Fireman is poorly served, and spends much of the novel off camera, sick or otherwise incapacitated. The reason for this is clear, having given him what are effectively superpowers, Hill has to keep finding ways to keep him out of the picture lest he resolve every problem by throwing some handy fireballs. It might not be so bad, but Harper never really comes alive, but then that’s hardly surprising given her defining character trait is that she’s a huge Mary Poppins fan, and that’s about it. By contrast the Fireman’s defining trait is that he’s British (though he never feels it to this Brit).

So what you’re left with the story of a group of survivors turning on themselves and turning to a crazy religious leader, which is what King did in The Mist, only he did it much better with two thirds of the page count.

Another issue is the Dragonscale itself, and whilst initially Hill keeps it fairly grounded, by the end of the book it’s gone from something that’s at least vaguely plausible, to something completely preposterous that imbues people with magical powers.

The book picks up in the final couple of hundred pages, although even here it lollygags, and more than once I found myself wishing Joe would just get a move on.

A great concept, a strong first act and an ok final act are let down by an overwrought, overlong and over-written middle section, paper thin characters, out of the blue betrayals worthy of a WWE wrester’s heel turn, and fantastical events that break many of the rules Hill laid out initially about the Scale.

I think a decent editor could have lopped half the book and still left something coherent, and probably better. As is this is a fire that burns white hot at first, but which soon fizzles out before sparking into life once more near the end just when you think the embers have finally  gone cold.

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