“The world was on fire and no one could save me but you..”
A deadly plague dubbed “dragonscale” – a disease that causes its carriers to burst into flames shortly following the appearance of black and gold scale-like patterns on their skin – is sweeping the nation. Small town nurse Harper Grayson becomes infected following a long stint working in a Massachusetts area hospital. When she and her husband discover she’s pregnant, the decision whether to keep the baby leads to a pretty nasty split. With nowhere to go, and looking for a safe haven to bring her child to term, Harper hooks up with a group of similarly infected individuals hiding out in a backwoods summer camp named Camp Wynward. The residents there seem to have found a way to control the infection and Harper is hoping she can survive long enough to see her child arrive safe and sound.
After turning the final page last week, I noticed it took me nearly a month to read this sucker. Sure, it’s nearly 800 pages, but I’ve flown through any one of James S.A. Corey’s Expanse novels in nearly half the time – so why did it take me a few weeks to reach the end of Joe Hill’s barnburner of a novel?
Likely because it suffered from what I thought was a slow start. Although the tension does pick up about a quarter of the way into the story, those first hundred or so pages felt like a real slog to get through. Granted, while there was a lot of groundwork to be laid concerning the breakdown of society and the spread of dragonscale, I found that Hill lingered a little too long on Harper’s life before joining up with the Wynward crew.
Once Harper arrives at camp and we’re introduced to a whole slew of new characters, the novel seems to shift to a “Lord of the Flies” style story complete with backstabbing and power-struggles. A lot of the more integral characters strongly develop and evolve reasonably to suit the changing atmosphere of the camp. Those in power seem to be willing to do anything to maintain control and keep the camp off the radar of the “cremation crews”, groups of self-governed militarized killers who hunt down and burn those afflicted with the mysterious malady.
The mark of a good central conflict is when an author can make both pros and cons for those occupying either side of a fundamental disagreement. While I thought that Harper was correct to defy authority, the actions of those at the head of the camp – while extreme – were done for the right reasons. Harper was reckless on a few occasions and her actions did put the camp at risk. On the other side, Carol Story, the daughter of camp patriarch Tom, went a little nuts on the paranoia scale and while she could have done things a lot differently, she wasn’t exactly power hungry. I thought the dynamic between both the perceived “good” and “evil” sides went a long way in keeping things interesting and the tension at a ridiculously high level.
Joe Hill had me a little worried at the beginning of the story but I stuck with it and it paid off in a big, big way. The Fireman is a high-octane thriller that will leave you severely singed.