The Fireman – Joe Hill

“Harper Grayson had seen lots of people burn on TV, everyone had, but the first person she saw burn for real was in the playground behind the school.”

No one knew why the tattoo-like marks started to appear on people’s skin: intricate swirls of black and gold. But it’s a deadly beauty: from ‘Dragonscale’ to smoking (and we’re not talking cigarettes!), and then a plague of human combustion.

Harper is a school nurse, but as the Dragonscale takes hold of the population civilisation goes into emergency mode. She spends her days volunteering at the hospital encased in a hazmat suit, but is that enough to protect her? If the worst happens, though, her husband has a plan…

The Fireman is a sprawling look at the end of the world (probably), as this infection grips hold of the population. And, suffice to say, it’s not just the spore that can be deadly. The big strength of this book is probably the way it shows human nature: fear, hope, survival, and even pettiness creeping in despite the horrors being faced.

This is my first experience of Joe Hill’s writing, and my impression is that the apple hasn’t fallen far from the tree – Hill, of course, being the son of horror master Stephen King. I could easily imagine The Fireman having come from King-the-elder’s pen: the slow build, the focus on the human stories amid catastrophe and chaos. The Stand  is a book that sprung to mind, thematically at least, while almost all of King’s later works have had that same achingly slow description of ‘normal’ life woes amid the horror.

Which… is both a strength and a weakness, including here. Yes, it can let you really understand and feel for the characters. And yes, it takes the book out of the shock-for-the-sake-of-it pace, allowing petty (that word again) horrors – generally the people kind – sicken the reader even more than the pandemic.

Other advanced reviews of this book have been absolutely glowing with praise, and I get that. But, while I can appreciate the book, and did enjoy it, I just didn’t love it. The pace irritated me a little (I felt I needed a break halfway through – from the length of the book, and the unswervingly grim and tense mood). I didn’t actually come to care for the characters much, despite spending so much time with them, which was kind of ‘hmm’. And, for such a long book, I didn’t really feel I was reading anything new in the story – as I said, reminders of some of ‘dad’s’ work, and of another book dealing with a fungal spore pandemic, which a few years back surprised me in ways this just didn’t.

It took Mr Hill 4 years to write this book, and I’m a little sorry I couldn’t love it more. I’m still planning on trying some of his earlier works, though, as the writing is strong. As it is, I can appreciate the time and effort that’s gone into it, and it stands as an impressive enough, solid piece of work – but, maybe just not as great as I expected  or hoped for.

NetGalley eArc: ~768 pages / 145 chapters
First published: 2016
Series: none
Read from 16th-30th May 2016

My rating: 6/10

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