In a post apocalyptic world where a plague unlike anything we’ve ever imagined spreads like wildfire, Joe Hill has a created a unique hero in The Fireman. As Hill develops a society that splits into diverse factions and collapses piecemeal, some figures step forward as leaders, good and bad. However, as is often true in real life, it is not the popular leader who stands at the head of change; it is the warrior who sees the needs of the people and fights to save some semblance of the pre-disaster world.
Beginning with the self sacrificing Nurse Harper Grayson and her unexpected meeting with the Fireman, Hill carries us forward into a strange world of darkness where day is night and night is day. Harper may be a strong heroine at work but at home is she a subtly abused wife. Her husband Jakob is a controlling egotist who identifies her through his own shortcomings. When he accuses her of being a glory hound it is apparent to the reader he is describing himself. It is Jakob who sees himself as a genius and whose selfishness motivates him to dominate Harper.
Developing the plot neatly, Hill takes us through Harper’s conception of a baby. In many ways, this seems to have been accidental but as a reader I think it is human nature to attempt to maintain the species, however subliminal that instinct may be. Jakob’s reaction is not surprising when his previous behavior is examined. Harper’s pregnancy redirects the spotlight of attention from the unpublished writer to his wife. His “creation” lacks vitality and hers will grow over nine months, a slap in his face. In addition he is no longer the one who must be cared for and attended to. Her needs must now supersede his and that is unacceptable. His already damaged mind crumbles even more until his behavior can only be described as insane.
Still, it isn’t until Harper shows the first indications of “Dragonscale” (Draco Incendia Trychophyton) that Jakob completely devolves. She then becomes a danger to him, a threat to his survival. That is unacceptable and a plan to rectify this error must be outlined and implemented. On Harper’s side, she is now responsible for another life. She can no longer devote all her attention and care to her relentlessly demanding husband. When he is unable to persuade her to abort the baby he must then find a way to eliminate her. In addition if he himself has been infected with a disease that he believes will inevitably send him up in flames, he must find a way to remove both Harper and himself from a burning world while punishing her for bringing him to an ignominious end.
As this drama plays out behind the locked door of Harper’s home, an escalating disaster continues outside. When Harper is finally forced to flee, she once again encounters The Fireman. He leads her to what seems to be a safe haven. Under the gentle guidance of “Father” Storey and his family a group of Dragonscale infected people develop a secure and peaceful society. Everything seems wonderful on the surface. As with many hope filled groups all is not what it seems and a darkness spreads beneath the veneer of community.
Secrets will be revealed and surprising twists and turns lead to a startling conclusion. Even when I thought I knew what was going on I was provided another tasty morsel of shock. As the revelations built one upon the other the tension becomes unbearable until the finale explodes with one giant blast.
Joe Hill skillfully develops his characters, bringing them to life, exposing their strengths and weaknesses, creating relationships that are so realistic it’s easy to forget you’re reading fiction. Hopeful, tragic, inspiring, discouraging, love, and hate; The Firemen covers the human experience knitting together an incredible book that could easily become an exciting film.