The Fireman by Joe Hill
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
Well, that was a spoonful of nonsense.
It had a promising start with the outbreak of a disease known as Dragonscale which first manifests as dark marks on the skin. Getting a free tribal tattoo might not sound that bad, but the real problem is that eventually infected people burst into flames and burn to death. The damage caused by walking blowtorches and the fear of being infected have society teetering on the brink of collapse.
Harper is a young nurse who discovers that she has contracted Dragonscale and she’s pregnant. If that isn’t bad enough her jerk-face husband Jakob goes coocoo for Coco-Puffs and thinks they should just kill themselves. During a desperate moment Harper finds help in the form of a mysterious guy dressed as a fireman who leads her to a hidden community of infected people who have found a way to survive the disease. Unfortunately, discord within that group proves as dangerous as the vigilante Cremation Squads that have started murdering the infected.
It’s a strong premise, but unfortunately there’s a number of factors that drag it down. First and foremost is that it’s way too long. Hill can’t seem to commit to one main story, and he keeps adding on to it like a late-night TV commercial promising, “But that’s not all!” This causes a lot of drift with a long swath of the book not even touching on what’s going on in the outside world and forgetting what should be major characters for long periods of time. It’s also like one of those action movies that never seems to know when to end that goes on 20 minutes past the point where it should have wrapped things up.
I also wasn’t a fan of Harper, and since this whole story is built on the idea of a plucky heroine trying to survive a civilization ending plague then I needed to have at least have some respect for her. Unfortunately, she comes across as twit who never seems to wise up until something terrible happens. Which it does. Repeatedly. I lost count of the number of times where she is shocked by the bad intentions of someone and says things like, “You can’t!” It’s the apocalype, lady. They can, and they will. Her infatuation with Mary Poppins, and Hill’s constant use of it and its songs are also way overdone.
In fact, there’s just too much goddamn music in this book overall with constant quoting of lyrics and talking about various musicians. It's a crutch Hill leans on far too often. Plus, it’s all Jurassic Rock with a smattering of ‘80s pop in there with even an old VJ from MTV having a role to play. It’s 2016, Joe Hill. I don’t need your main character, who is supposedly in her early twenties, lecturing me on what the preference for the Rolling Stones or the Beatles says about a person.
Another piece that flies off this jalopy of a book once it gets up to speed is the nature of the disease itself. There’s a lot of effort spent to convince us that there is a rational scientific reason that people would turn into Zippos, and I can suspend disbelief enough to go with that concept. But when more and more is added to the point where we’re into ideas like people being able to generate and control fire without their clothes burning and even more weirdness then you don’t need Neal deGrasse Tyson to call bullshit on it. Just as he couldn’t seem to commit to one story or another Hill can’t seem to decide if he wanted a more grounded concept with some science behind it or if he wanted to jump full-on into the supernatural pool.
Hill also opted to run home to Daddy in this because the entire book is absolutely rotten with Easter eggs of Stephen King’s work. A few references can be fun, but when Hill essentially ‘borrows’ a character from The Stand including a cute little name trick to underline it then it’s crossed the line. (Harold Cross? For a character who is essentially Harold Lauder? That's weak.*) After a while it started to seem desperate, as if Hill knew things weren’t going well and hoped he might use fan familiarity of his father's books to invoke some of his magic. Hill also seems to have inherited his father’s trait of having a bunch of characters claim that they’re are critically short of time only to have them waste most of it with idle chit-chat and banter that is supposed to be funny and make you like the characters. It’s not, and it doesn’t.
So at this point Hill is 2 for 4 with me, and after this I’m going to need a really good reason to pick up his next one.
* And I didn't think about this until I read Edward Lorn's review where he pointed out that there's also a deaf character named Nick. Come on, Joe Hill. You're better than that.
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