I’m not sure that Joe Hill is the real God of Hellfire,but with his latest novel The Fireman, . This near future, science fiction thriller sees the world slowly but surely fall apart in response to a fungal infection known as “Dragonscale”. This infection manifests itself initially with beautiful back and gold markings on the persons skin, however, in the vast majority of cases infection will result in the person spontaneously bursting into flames. no one knows where it came from and no one knows how to combat it.
The initial fear of the disease is kept at a residual level, it is only when the number of infected patients reaches a critical mass and they start to cause massive incidents of multiple patients all bursting into flames in unison that the real panic sets in. As society begins to break down and central governments across the word lose their grip on things, so does the fear and paranoia of those not yet infected with the disease. This leads to formation of “Cremation Crews”, a sort of local militia / martial law volunteer force whose single purpose in life is to hunt down and extinguish the infected with Dragonscale.
The world quickly becomes torn asunder as those infected with Dragonscale try to find a safe haven in a world to scared to let them live. The infected try to escape from certain death by retreating into secret hidden communities, but even here those who seek safety aren’t safe as desire, ego and a desire for power all make for a deadly bedfellows.
The Fireman, is a pre, during and post apocalyptic novel, but at its heart, (something which this book has loads of), The Fireman is a personal tale about, loss, longing, the desire to fit in and acceptance. The grand scale destruction of the modern world only ever exists as a dark and forbidding backdrop to the very human story that beats at the core of this fascinating novel. It is only in the final act of the book that we get a glimpse at the wider picture and the ash laden post -apocalyptic nightmare that the world has collapsed into.
This is Harper’s story, a nurse with a heart of gold, she is a shining light in the impending doom. Obsessed with all things British, musicals, Mary Poppins and unable to swear effectively. Harper could have come across as a twee and saccharine sweet heroine, but thanks to her corde leonis Harper never becomes falls into cliched female characterisation. Her transformation from the timid partner of Jakob Grayson, to the full on battle cleric of Harper Willowes is believable and captivating. Harper is a complex character and Hill’s handling of her is flawless, she is inspiring, and infuriating with equal measure. Her Mary Poppins obsession could easily have come across as a twee and distracting character flaw, but Hill cleverly reigns it in so it becomes more of sparkling facet of her nature in a world of darkness.
The frustration with her character comes from her inability to just sit by and let others do some of the things that she does. I can understand that Hill's need to have a female lead that was as strong if not stronger in spirit than Vic McQueen from his previous novel NOS4R2, however at times this desire for a strong female lead results in the reader getting annoyed at Harper. On a few occasions you begin to wonder how could a woman in her position do some of the things that she does without repercussions? And yet despite this occasional misstep in characterisation Harper remains a a wonderfully complex and engaging character, and within a few short paragraphs you are completely invested her story. Hill takes her through horrible yet sympathetic
journey, from the discovery of the true feelings towards her from her partner Jakob, to the physical and mental torture of her journey to safety is at times heartbreaking and brutal. And yet she always remains upbeat and outwardly cheerful, her role as the camp’s nurse / emotional mother sees her acting like beacon of hope rather than a dowdy housewife. And even through she is sometimes capable of doing things that appear to be out of the realms of normal human capabilities you are so caught up in her story and her character that you can forgive these slight missteps.
As a counter point to Harper’s Earth Mother persona we have her ex partner Jakob and the Fireman, John Rockwood. I would like to talk about these two characters together, as I have a theory that they are two sides of the same coin of Hill’s subconscious. Jakob, a failed writer who thinks he is better than everyone else, who defaults to a destructive personality when things don’t work out for him. I suspect that this represents the fear and self doubt that Hill has towards his writing. Now this may seem like a tenuous link, but the why would Hill make this character a writer and a failed one at that? And Jakob, also never really appears in the book, for all of the influence that Jakob has on the story’s narrative he never really has much presence on the page. Jakob, appears more as an ever constant threat of danger and destructiveness, like a dark cloud that hangs over her life, with the ever present danger of unleashing a storm of hurt and pain. I get the feeling that Jakob represents the dark nature of Hill’s personality when he is in writer mode and the all consuming passion that locks out everything else in a writers world.
Which brings us to John, when you consider that John is The Fireman of the book, he again has surprisingly little time on the page. Even in the final act of the book John is consigned to the sidelines of the story. Where Jakob is an avatar of hurt and pain, John and his phoenix of flame is an avatar of hope, courage and freedom. And where Jakob represents fear and failure John represents faith, humanity and the courage to believe in who you want to be. (SPOILER ALERT) John isn’t a real Fireman, he is acting out a flight of fancy in world that has gone to hell.
Since John may represent the good side of Hill’s psyche, John’s character is allowed to develop more fully. Initially John is somewhat stand offish but as we learn more about John and his past he becomes much more likeable. John’s real character development comes when we learn the reason behind his reluctance to teach others how to tap into his flame on powers. This heartbreaking revelation is handle with the deftest of touches and will bring tear to your eye.
It is a brave move to have the title character of the book play such a secondary role in the story, but Hill pulls it off, like all real Firemen John is only there when we need him to be.
While this is Harper’s story The Fireman is so much more than a story about one woman’s survival in a world that has gone to hell. Hill uses her to highlight some deeper issues in this multilayered story. He skilfully explores such themes as fear of the unknown and those different to us, like the classic Chris Claremont X-men comics The Fireman uses its narrative as a mirror to highlight our species inability to accept those who don’t fit into our narrow view of what makes a person normal.
The Cremation Crews represent our most base level of hatred and fear. The crews are composed of the nastiest and most vulgar representations of mankind. Singleminded in their obsession to destroy anyone who is infected with Dragonscale, they are incapable of rational thought and compassion. They are painted with broad strokes with very little character development, but they used brilliantly, in a sort of reverse Dawn of The Dead way. They may be the uninfected, but it is they who are the real monsters in this story.
Hill also explores the dangers of herd mentality and the dangers of blindly believing in a cause. The group dynamics of Camp Wyndham and those who inhabit it give a real insight into the interpersonal relationships of a community. While everything may appear to be good, the undercurrent of dissent and jealousy between certain members, trickles through this section of the novel in an insidious fashion. Even though this is supposed to be haven for the infected Hill ensures that we understand that even blind faith in the righteous can lead to evil deeds. Hill infuses the haven with a Jonestown massacre sense of dread which highlights the danger of blindly believing those people in a position of power. The inhabitants may be capable of great compassion, but they are also capable of great evil. I will never look at a pebble in the same light ever again.
The Fireman is powerful and captivating novel, with strong characters and a strong voice Hill has created a story that is far more satisfying than his previous novel, which suffered from a bad case of bloat. Something which this novel never suffers from, and like his previous novel is chock full of nods and winks to so many pop culture icons. From Dr Who, Mary Poppins, Harry Potter, (just be prepared for a shocking appearance of J.K.Rowling), and a hilarious reference to Malcom Tucker, where John teaches Harper to swear properly. These nods and winks are used perfectly to bring sense of relief to the otherwise brutal narrative. They are never over used and never forcibly inserted into the story.
However, this novel does suffer from one major problem, and while I understand why Hill chose to do it, I do feel that as in NOS4R2 the reader is slightly cheated with regards to the fate of one of the characters. It almost feels as though they are tossed aside, once they have served their purpose, but this is a minor quibble in an otherwise amazing novel.
The Fireman firmly cements Hills position as one of the most important writers of our generation, this is an impressive novel that still manages to have a sense of the wondrous despite the brutal and harrowing backdrop of the narrative. With elegant prose and a keen eye for what makes us tick as a species, The Fireman ranks as one of the most accomplished genre novels of revcent times.