The Fireman: A Novel
“The Fireman is a lit fuse of tension that explodes in ever-increasing intervals as the novel progresses . . .”
“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.”
Joe Hill likes to start his readers in the thick of it, where tension is high and the hook can sink deeply and carry them along for the journey. The adventure of his newest novel The Fireman is well worth diving into this 700+ page tome.
The reader immediately meets protagonist Harper, a school nurse under the thumb of an emotionally abusive husband and in the midst of a worldwide crisis. An epidemic is on the rise, a spore nicknamed Dragonscale that causes its victims to spontaneously combust a few weeks, or sometimes months, after infection. Large swaths of the countryside have burned, the infrastructure of civilization has eroded, and Harper finds that, despite numerous safety precautions, she is infected—and pregnant.
In order to ensure a safe and healthy future for her child, Harper trusts a mysterious figure called The Fireman and a community of infected people that promise salvation from burning and protection from vigilante Cremation Crews who hunt infected for sport, led by a shock jock called The Marlboro Man, who encourages his listeners to abuse, hunt, and kill those infected with the spore.
It is obvious that someone once told Joe Hill “Get your protagonists up in a tree and throw rocks at them.” The Fireman is a lit fuse of tension that explodes in ever-increasing intervals as the novel progresses, culminating in an ending that is slightly unsatisfying and open-ended, yet the only one that makes sense.
Harper’s safety and the well-being of her child are never guaranteed, nor the protection of the infected with her who become her surrogate family. The uncertainty, combined with a cast of characters that is deeply likable and sympathetic, creates an enjoyable tension that carries through until the last page.
Behind the constant danger of the Cremation Crews is the more complicated, nuanced struggle within the infected camp to understand and balance the society they’ve created. Some of the scenes when Harper first arrives do drag a bit and cut into the pacing, although it feels intentional to give some slack to the tension before pulling it taught again. Just as the reader begins to sympathize with the weight of Harper’s new life of routine, Hill kicks in with some Westeros-level intrigue that will make most readers tear through chapters like they’re binge-watching their favorite show on Netflix.
Harper is an immediately likable and relatable protagonist. She is resourceful, intelligent and strong, much like admirable women readers will recognize from real life. Her ability to be the calmest voice in the room during a crisis and her determination to stay honest in the face of pressure makes her admirable. She is feminine without becoming a damsel in distress and strong without slipping into the clichéd warrior princess or martial arts expert trope that plagues popular fiction. While The Fireman does save her, Harper also saves him in multiple ways both physically and emotionally throughout the book.
In contrast, although The Fireman’s past and his identity are revealed as the novel progresses, he feels underdeveloped despite being the titular character. Other than his relationships and his profession, as well as a penchant for machismo and sarcasm, the reader only explores his experience in brief flashbacks and scenes when he and Harper are alone. That void hurts reader engagement and the emotional impact of later chapters. Although The Fireman’s relationship with Harper wasn’t necessarily a primary focus, the lack of connection with his character as a reader did render his and Harper’s interactions a bit flat and cut into the credibility of their awkward and ill-timed romance.
Hill has said in interviews that The Fireman is his version of The Stand. Subjectively, that is an unfair comparison in many ways. The Fireman is more like Game of Thrones meets Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. The high-tension and fast pacing makes it a highly entertaining read, while Harper’s journey and her character growth, as well as the internal politics of the novel, give the story a level of depth and texture that show Hill is reaching to a higher level of maturity with his craft.