The world is ending in this book’s beginning. “A manageable crisis was teetering on the edge of an unmanageable disaster.” A bizarre and terrifying plague that erupted first in far away lands has arrived in the US, much to the horror of Americans everywhere. Worse, scientists have no idea how the disease spreads, how to prevent it, or how to keep it from causing the death of anyone who becomes infected. Draco Incendia Trychophyton is a infection that causes first, black scales to erupt all over the body of the patient and within a matter of days, perhaps weeks for some, the person begins to smoulder. “Smolderers smoked on and off, always ready to ignite. Smoke curled from their hair, their nostrils, and their eyes streamed with water.” Then, when the patient grows to frantic with the disease, they erupt into flames, dying and in almost all cases causing fires to rip through the buildings they are in causing wide-spread destruction.
Within a matter of months, the far-flung outbreak has reached every corner of the country. Millions dead, whole cities burning to the ground, services cut off, civilization unraveling, and no hope of a end in sight. Residents of a small New Hampshire town who had grown accustomed to remote stories of the outbreak wake one morning (in the first chapters: this is not a spoiler) to find it on their doorstep. Harper Grayson — the story’s main character — and her husband Jakob Grayson find themselves suddenly on the front lines. Harper becomes infected at the same time she becomes pregnant; Jakob remains infected but quickly begins to lose his grip on reality as fear of contagion overtakes him.
The town in which they live, as everywhere on earth, is suddenly a battleground between the infected and the healthy; everyone is suspicious and practically manic with their fear. Soon, both sides are stockpiling supplies and weapons and creating two entirely new social structures, neither willing to peacefully co-exist. Harper escapes to a hide-out filled with infected who have learned to control the infection and who have formed a highly-structured, cult-like community in the woods. Jakob bands together with other uninfected people who sole mission is to stay healthy at any cost.
Over nearly 800 pages, Hill tells the story of this new dystopian world where old concerns fall away and new horrors emerge with startling rapidity, leaving all of the characters reeling from crisis to crisis trying to hold onto some humanity in the process. Although it is far too long of a novel, Fireman is exceedingly well-written and its characters compelling. You cannot help but root for the rag-tag band of protagonists, led by Harper, and you sincerely hope them make it through the chaos to find a more peaceful life. Conversely, the villains of the story are spooky, evil, and terrifying but just as well-written, it is easy to see how such people could rise up in the face of such an enormous disaster.
The primary drawback to the novel is its size; the author has so many pages to fill and at times the story falters and wanders away from the action in ways that could have been edited out. As with all dystopian novels, the heroes have to overcome many, many challenges but in a book this long the list of challenges begins to seem comic, by the end there is actually nothing left for them to endure. In the end, a great read heavily influenced by Stephen King’s* The Stand and Under the Dome, with a hint of hysteria of Salem witch trials and similar stories added into the mix.
*Note: Joe Hill is Stephen King’s son. Under the Dome mentioned here: http://wp.me/p6N6mT-B
Joe Hill’s previously reviewed novel, Heart-Shaped Box, can be found here: http://wp.me/p6N6mT-D