Thursday, September 08, 2016

Review: "The Fireman," by Joe Hill

I’ve never been disappointed by Joe Hill’s work, and despite some misgivings, that doesn’t change with “The Fireman” ($28.99, William Morrow).

A strange and horrifying virus is sweeping across the planet – Draco Incendia Trychophyton, or its common name, Dragonscale. The disease marks its victims with tattoo-like designs that are often beautiful, but just as deadly. Eventually, those designs will catch fire, burning the victim alive and usually anything within reach.

No one is quite sure where the spore that causes the virus came from or what to do about it, and as more and more people become infected, the world begins to panic.

Harper Grayson, a nurse with a penchant for breaking out in songs from “Mary Poppins,” is on the frontlines of the battle to save people from the disease, or at least make them comfortable, until she contracts it herself. That sets off a chain of events that destroys the life she knows and sends her into hiding from her husband and the cremation squads that arise in the chaos.

She escapes with the help of a mysterious man known as The Fireman, who leads her to a place where she just might be able to survive the end of the world.

Truth be told, I really didn’t want to like this book in the early going. A year or so ago, during a period of heavy political ranting by Hill, I unfollowed his Twitter account because I just got tired of it. Don’t get me wrong, I understand that artists are people, too, and have just as much right to their political opinions as anyone else, but I follow those accounts because I enjoy their books or music or whatever. That’s what I want to hear about when I subscribe to those feeds. When almost every post is hammering away on some political topic, I tend to walk away. Hill’s far from the only person on either side of the fence that I’ve decided to walk away from in the last year or so. (I’ve pretty much abandoned Twitter entirely, to be honest).

Back to “The Fireman,” though, in the early going of the book it becomes pretty clear that one of Hill’s hot-topic political agendas is strongly at play in this story. Had it not been for those social media postings, it might not have struck me the way it did as agenda-pushing. Because of that, though, I spent a large part of the early story annoyed with the approach and that caused me to focus on details on the subject that Hill just gets plain wrong for dramatic effect.

I’ve always done my best to try to separate the artist as a person and their work, though, and I usually succeed. I mean, I like the books and music of some pretty batshit crazy folks (I’m looking at you, Ted Nugent). Fortunately, Hill makes it easier to put that aside as the story builds.

A series of absolutely gut-wrenching shifts in the tale made me forget all about my early annoyance, and even though you can see most of them coming a long way off, those turns still manage to surprise you a little bit in the details.

I do think that, much like his dad’s work, “The Fireman” could have used a bit of tightening up. It drags in places, and I think there are some fascinating things going on in the world around Harper that we only get in bits and pieces because she’s somewhat sheltered from it. The trickle of information she gets via a radio broadcast late in the book piques my interest about what else might be out there.

I was also taken with the idea that the Dragonscale takes on patterns that mean something to the victim. I thought it was an interesting idea, but Harper only ponders it briefly, and then that line drops. I think it might have been a cool way to develop the symbiotic nature of the spore.

Hill loads the book with great references that fantasy and science fiction fans will enjoy, some very obvious, some not so much. As a child of the 1980s, I also found it fun that the voice leading people to salvation on the radio was Martha Quinn. I mentioned a bad habit he’s developed from his father earlier, but the pop culture references are one of the good traits he’s picked up, and he does it well, with a couple of nice twists that I won’t spoil.

While I’m not a fan of overtly political books, I’m not opposed if you give me a good story to go with it. Hill does draw some pointed parallels with things going on in our current world, and makes some points that I think most of us can agree with, particularly around the dangers of hatred and fear of a group of people who are different. It’s a story that we see playing out in the headlines every day with tragic consequences. There is irony in the point, though, given that Hill’s earlier political agenda does seem to demonize a particular group of people, but that, too, reflects the everyday reality of our political conflicts.

For me, “The Fireman” is certainly the weakest of Hill’s works that I’ve read to this point, but it’s still a good story with moments that reflect the best that he has to offer.


Unknown said...

I'm about 7 chapters in, and I'm terribly hung up on the political spewing page by page. We get it, you're a liberal, now please get on with the fucking book. I don't know if I can finish it

Fred Phillips said...

I'm not going to lie. I had to push pretty hard to get through it, and if I hadn't been such a fan of his previous work, I probably would have given up on it. The political BS and the full display of his lack of knowledge of what he's railing on about still annoy me, but once he gets past the soapbox (mostly) the story gets better. Still his weakest work by far, though.