Book Review - The Fireman by Joe Hill
Joe Hill goes post-apocalyptic in this not scary, but still engaging, tale about the end of the world as we know it!
Kudos to my local bookclub for forcing me out of my reading slump! We recently added Horror to the established genres (used to be just Science Fiction & Fantasy), and picked The Fireman as our October read. After having read Mr. Hill’s excellent ghost story Heart-Shaped Box a few months ago, I was primed for another delightfully spooky tale. Little did I know at the time that The Fireman is actually Joe Hill’s least spooky book…
When you had no voice, you had no identity. Most people took no more notice of the profoundly deaf than they did of their own shadows.
But, just because it was short on scares doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy it. In all honesty, I found it quite engaging and well written, and a very worthy entry into the “what if” post-apocalyptic genre that is so popular right now. After reading the book, and then checking out a few other reviews, I think I’m on the same page as most other folks. But before all the reviewy goodness, let’s get the business part out of the way!
As with all of my reviews, I will attempt to keep spoilers to a minimum. I always enjoy books more when I go into them blind, with minimal preconceived notions and no plot spoilers known. So, in an effort to preserve the plot as best as I can, if it’s not mentioned in the official book synopsis, and has some significant bearing on plot or twists, I will do my level best to avoid mentioning it here.
Clocking in at 771 pages, The Fireman is a beast of a book. But despite the page count, for the most part it’s gripping and engaging, rarely feeling bloated or rambling. That’s not to say that it doesn’t meander from time to time, because there are moments where it does start to drag, but they are few and far between. For the most part, The Fireman is a well thought-out and deftly paced character study of average people living through, and experiencing firsthand, monumental and frightening change. And while it may not be a spookfest like his other books, there is still just enough of a supernatural element in play to keep things interesting.
"Yeah, that's right. Why die alone when you can have company? Nothing says 'I love you' like passing along a horrible fucking fatal infection to your nearest and dearest."
One of the things I admire about Joe Hill is that he has the ability to vividly bring characters to life in a way that his father never quite manages. Let me throw a caveat in here before everyone starts flipping out. I absolutely love Stephen King books. Always have, always will. He has more ideas in that head of his than ten other authors put together. Nobody is quite as skilled at tackling nearly any genre and making it their own. But for me, the ONE area that Mr. King generally loses me is with his characters. Are they well thought out? Yes. Do they have rich backstories? They sure do. Are they varied and unique and fun? Most definitely. But…they are also somewhat intangible. Like I can identify that they are detailed characters with complex motivations, but I never really identify with them or 100% commiserate with them. I’ve rarely thought “oh, I know someone just like that!” when reading Mr. King’s characters. But with The Fireman, I can actually relate & compare multiple characters to people in my everyday life. Yes, they are still slightly larger-than-life in the book, as that’s a given for fiction, but they are still relatable to someone for me. That’s a huge thing when it comes to immersion within the fantasy of the narrative. The more you can relate it to your own life, the more you can suspend disbelief and go with the flow. And having a solid protagonist to drape the story around, and who is someone the reader can root for, is also just as important.
Your personality is not just a matter of what you know about yourself, but what others know about you. You are one person with your mother, and another with your lover, and yet another with your child. Those other people create you - finish you - as much as you create you.
Thankfully Harper Willowes, our single third-person POV character, is more than up to the task. From hopes and dreams to fears and dislikes, I really felt like Harper was one of the most realistic protagonists I’ve read in a post-apocalyptic story. From her naïve wet blanket beginnings to her determined and driven mentality at the end of the book, Harper is everything a good main character should be. She’s tenacious and has a mouth that sometimes gets her in trouble, but she has a big heart and enough determination for a small army. She’s a great example of an everyday person stuck in extraordinary circumstances, and the book does well in examining her personality and motivations, while giving her a realistic character arc. She actually grows, changes, and learns over the course of the novel, but none of it feels forced or contrived. I was a little concerned at first, since she did start out as kind of a pushover, but that personality evaporates when the shit hits the fan, and once she’s on the path to the person she’s going to be, I was fully invested.
She associated English accents with singing teapots, schools for witchcraft, and the science of deduction. This wasn't, she knew, terribly sophisticated of her, but she had no real guilt about it.
"We can," Harper said. "We will. Democracy motherfuckers. Get used to it."
The rest of the characters are viewed through her eyes, but they are still a well-drawn bunch of folks. Again, this novel focuses more as a character study after the world has gone to hell, so we get a huge motley crew of personalities to follow. From cowards in power to the silent strength of quiet friends, and everything in between, every archetype is viewed and tested. Some get redeemed, some get judged, and many just get dead. But all in all, the supporting cast is enjoyable and varied, giving Harper plenty of personalities to play off of.
Most of them had been preparing for postapocalyptic stealth missions since they were old enough to pick up an Xbox controller.
The antagonists, such as they are, make sense in the larger context of the story, and one in particular has a personal tie to Harper. This makes the stakes a little higher than normal, and generally helps to add a good sense of tension to the tale. Much like most post-apocalyptic stories, the real villains are not the supernatural element, but the everyday people who let their baser desires take over. Again, Joe Hill does a great job at examining what makes these people give in to madness and fear, providing realistic motivations for horrific acts.
So there were other ways to enter the exalted state of the Bright, then. A chorus or a firing squad: either would serve to satisfy the 'scale. A gang rape was as good as a gospel.
As mentioned earlier, this is not so much a horror book as it is a post-apocalyptic survival story with some supernatural elements thrown in. It actually kinda rubs me the wrong way that this was winning Horror awards, as it’s not even remotely scary, nor is it trying to be. Though he primarily tells scary story, I think that shoehorning Mr. Hill into the Horror genre only does him a huge disservice. This is the story of the decline of society in the face of a dangerous infection and the people who find a way to live on despite the chaos around them. And it succeeds admirably on that front. The fiery infection is handled well, with just enough science to make it plausible while still retaining some of the fantastical elements to make it exciting. As more and more of the secrets of the infection become known, it drastically changes the way our protagonists live with it.
You don't want to start A Game Of Thrones when you might catch fire all of a sudden. There's something horribly unfair about dying in the middle of a good story, before you have a chance to see how it all comes out.
This novel also keeps you on your toes. Just when you think it’s strictly about the end of the world, it changes to encompass all sorts of topics; cults, science, parenthood, humanity, benevolence vs. punishment, etc. And it all works, thanks to Mr. Hill’s writing style. He’s in that sweet spot where he’s neither overly detailed nor frustratingly vague. His story is both plot-driven AND character-driven, and the dialogue is pitch-perfect. People actually say things that real people would say. Many other authors try to cram way too much dialogue into their books, having each character sound like the most eloquently gilded-tongued socialite that ever lived. Not everyone talks like that, and not everyone should talk like that.
Let it be known that, despite the name of the book, the titular Fireman is NOT a primary focus of the book. He definitely has his moments, and he's a cool character, but he's not quite what you think he is given the way the synopsis seems just as much about him as Harper. Like everything else in the book, he's part of Harper's story, but NOT even close to the whole story. FYI.
When we shine, they all come back to us, you know. The light we make together shows everything that was ever lost to darkness.
But for all the praise I can heap on it, The Fireman still left me a little unsatisfied. Again, so many things are pointing to it being a horror novel, but it isn’t. So I went in wanting scares and got an examination on the various aspects of humanity that come out during a crisis. Good stuff, and always food for thought, but not what I was after. And, as other reviewers have mentioned, the ending was a bit of a letdown. Not that I expected everything to end up 100% hunky-dory, but at the same time, I did want a little more. There’s an awful lot of buildup to…not much at the end. But c’est la vie. We can’t always get what we want, right?
In her experience, it was very difficult to offer a man affection and kindness without giving him the impression you were also offering a lay.
Ultimately, I enjoyed the book. It is a solid survival story, with great characters and an intriguingly fresh take on a life-threatening contagion. Though it doesn’t quite stick the landing, it’s still a worthwhile read for fans of post-apocalyptic tales. Flame on!
4 out of 5 hunka-hunka burnin' stars!