The Fireman by Joe Hill
Gollancz, HB, £20
Reviewed by Stuart Johnstone
Although it may not be obvious who Joe Hill’s father is, on reading a few pages of this superb post-apocalyptic thriller, there are a couple of subtle hints.
Beautifully-observed characters, a constant sense of foreboding and dread, and moments of swift and brutal violence – they’re all the hallmarks of Joe’s dad, the one and only Stephen King.
That’s not to say The Fireman is a derivative piece of work. There are similarities with King’s masterpiece The Stand, but these are mainly superficial. Whereas The Stand was an epic – almost too epic at times – story of good versus evil in the aftermath of a devastating outbreak, The Fireman is an altogether more intimate tale of how a similar global catastrophe affects just a few.
The book follows Harper Grayson, a nurse who finds out she is pregnant not long after a horrifying disease, Dragonscale, which sees people more or less spontaneously combusting, sweeps the globe, leaving cities charred and destroyed.
Law and order disappears among the smoke, and survivors – or those who have not yet been consumed by the disease – must find a way to keep on living. For Harper the stakes are even higher, with her unborn child a reason to fight on.
As well as the illness, Harper also has to contend with her psychotic husband, who is part of a death squad attempting to eradicate people suffering from Dragonscale before they can affect anyone else. When he attacks her she is rescued by a mysterious fireman, a man who appears to be able to control the Dragonscale flames. As a nurse, Harper is intrigued and thinks she may have found the key to unlocking a cure, but the fireman carries many secrets, and her priority has to be her soon-to-arrive baby.
Post-apocalyptic stories are everywhere these days, with the success of The Walking Dead on TV and books such as The Passage and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road recent bestsellers.
What sets The Fireman apart is the sense of optimism that runs through the narrative. These characters are not sinking into the depths of despair – they want to survive. It’s a sometimes jarring mix. It’s hard to be chipper when you are literally in a living hell, but it somehow works. It helps that you care enormously about the characters, who are entirely believable.
Joe Hill is clearly influenced and inspired by his dad, but this book is very much his own work, and he’s setting himself a high bar for what is sure to be a long and successful career.
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