The Fireman | Joe Hill | 2016 (7 June) | Gollancz | 768p | Review copy | Buy the book
Harper Grayson used to be a school nurse in Concord, Massachusetts, and it was there, just outside the school, that she saw a man spontaneously burst into flames and burn to death. Harper had much to do, calming the hysterical children and their teachers, all herded into the gym, hiding from the sight. But, looking back, those were the normal days. Far too soon others from the school would themselves burn, leading to the school’s closure, the movement of many of the population to the local hospital and everywhere the smell of burnt human flesh. The hospital itself, houses, towns, all catching fire from their inhabitants, society reduced to ashes.
Harper isn’t immune. One day she finds on herself the beautiful golden trail of the fiery virus known as the Dragonscale. Her husband turns against her, one of the many determined to destroy the carriers of the disease as the world goes mad. She has no choice but to flee, following the promise offered by the Fireman and others like him who appear to be able to control the Dragonscale, using the power of the Bright to rise above the elements of nature in the most extraordinary of ways.
The Fireman is without doubt a remarkable novel. It is epic and monumental in size, theme and wonder. In some ways it reads as a homage to The Stand by Stephen King (Joe Hill’s father). The Stand is one of my favourite novels of all time and reading The Fireman filled me with the same feelings – horror at the affliction scouring mankind but also wonder at the potential meaning of this apocalypse and its transformation of its victims and survivors into something else, the growth of new religion. Both feature journeys, a quest, damnation and hope, character types, but The Fireman stands tall as a fantastic achievement in its own right, moving the story on to the present day, filling it with so many fabulous pop culture references, bringing us the stories of unforgettable men, women and children, as they cope with the dread that at any moment they too will burn.
Here we have a grand battle of good versus evil – the forces against take on a demonic character and there is something holy and beautiful in the Dragonscale that glistens across the skin of the infected. But the nature of the Dragonscale itself is deeply enigmatic and ambiguous. Its place at the centre of a new spirituality is hardly surprising but is it, or the people who live with the Bright, to be trusted? And what is the alternative?
The Fireman is a large book but you hardly notice the pages turning and you certainly wouldn’t want to rush it. There are moments of extreme and violent action, fought by real people, there are other passages that are so evocative, memorable and beautifully written, with characters to match. There are also jawdropping moments. It’s the most atmospheric read I’ve had in a long time. When I think of The Fireman now, I feel wrapped in that atmosphere still. It’s not an easy book to review, it contains so much, not least the extraordinary, wonderful figure of Harper Grayson who will stay with me for such a long time. So, instead of rambling on, I would urge you to read The Fireman and let it carry you away.