Book Reviews

Review: The Fireman, by Joe Hill



The Fireman

By: Joe Hill

Published: May 17, 2016

The Rundown: It’s the end of the world as we know it!  A new plague is sweeping the globe, and its name is Dragonscale: a spore that causes black markings to develop on your skin, right before you spontaneously combust.  Nurse Harper Grayson contracted the disease on the same day she became pregnant.  Since the disease can’t be transmitted from mother to fetus, she needs a safe place to hide and deliver the baby.  This will be tricky, since half the country is on fire, armed militias are hunting down the sick, and her crazy husband is out for her blood.  Can she survive the next nine months?

Don’t Get Strung Out by the Way I Look: Man, this cover is cool.  It’s done entirely in black and orange: fitting, because the story is centered on fire.  In the center of the cover, there is a person standing inside a flame.  Presumably, it’s the eponymous Fireman, here to save the day.  Maybe it’s Harper’s husband Jakob, walking through fire itself to kill her.  Because the figure is just a silhouette, we can’t be sure of its intentions.  Does it bring safety, or does it bring death?  You can’t be sure!  This question fits the disease Dragonscale too, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

The Good Guy: Harper is Mary Poppins in a post-apocalyptic setting.  She’s cheerful, kind, and forgiving.  The only thing missing from her persona is animated birds flitting around, helping her with her tasks.  This character could easily have been extremely annoying.  However, the fact that she’s walking around in a post-apocalyptic setting makes her work.  She adds a sense of much-needed hopefulness into what could easily be just another dreary dystopian novel.  The fact that Harper is a nurse is also a point in her favor, since it means she’s actually useful to the other survivors, and they have a reason to keep her around.  Oh, and did I mention that she’s escaping an abusive relationship?  And she’s pregnant for almost the entire novel?  You don’t see many characters like her, especially in stories by male writers.

And the Bad Guy: There are a couple of antagonists, but the main bad guy in the story is Harper’s husband, Jakob.  From the second he showed up, I wanted to sock this guy in the face.  He refers to his wife as “babygirl.”  He talks about how he won’t “allow” her to go to work, now that the plague has reached their hometown.  Oh, and when he hears about a bus of infected Chinese people that catches fire, he asks, “Who ordered the flaming pupu platter, right?”  The more you learn about him, the more you hate him.  He’s just a racist, sexist asshole.

And the Guy in the Good Guy’s Bed: The Fireman (aka John Rookwood) is Harper’s love interest.  He acts like someone who’s self-absorbed, but he really cares about other people.  He risks his personal safety repeatedly in order to help the infected, who are being hunted down and killed by the healthy.  He’s also a total badass, having learned how to use the Dragonscale’s power.  He’s hesitant to start a relationship with Harper, however: he still ‘carries a flame’ for his dead lover, who was killed by the disease.  Another cool thing about the Fireman: his name is a reference to Ray Bradbury’s novel Fahrenheit 451.  The Fireman, in both stories, doesn’t set out fires: he starts them.

A Spoonful of Sugar: One thing which was really well done in this story is its depiction of misogyny.  All of the antagonists are, in one way or another, incredibly sexist.  Jakob views Harper as someone with the intelligence of a child, despite the fact that she’s a licensed nurse and he’s just a failed writer.  The Marlboro Man uses his position as a militia leader to coerce sexual favors out of women.  Carol Storey prizes her virginity and uses it to place herself on a pedestal.  She and her henchmen view Harper not as a mother, but as an incubator.

Burn it Down: The Fireman contains a lot of wink-wink reference to other novels by Joe Hill and his father, Stephen King.  For example, several characters—namely, Harold Cross and Nick Storey– are references to characters from King’s novel The Stand.  It can get pretty distracting.

Does it Represent…

Women: Hell yes, there are women present in the novel!  The main character is a woman, and a pregnant woman at that.  So you get to read all about how pregnancy is super unpleasant because you can barely walk, and then you have contractions, and people start treating like you’re cargo container.  It’s great!  There are female good guys.  There are female bad guys.  There are minor female characters that do major things.  In terms of representation of women, this story is awesome.

People of Color: In terms of representation of people of color, this story is not awesome.  The only non-white character is Renée Gilmonton (African-American).  She pops in and out of the novel, and generally is there to be a gentle voice of reason.  Hill tries to lampshade the fact that there are so few black characters by having Renée say that even before she had Dragonscale, people were staring at her.  It doesn’t work.

LGBT People: All the LGBT people with Dragonscale burned up immediately because they were too fabulous to appear in this novel.

The Disabled: In the survivor’s camp, there is an orphan named Nick Storey who is deaf.  At first, I was worried that he was going to be an example of the trope Magical Differently Abled Person, but Nick’s depiction was actually okay.  He insists that he can smell things, like the gender of Harper’s baby and the evil off of another character, but the point is that HE is the one saying this.  He thinks he is special because he is a child, and all children believe they are special.  Hill also appears to have researched deafness: he points out how difficult lip-reading actually is, and how people often forget to tell Nick important things, constantly leaving him out of the loop.

Did the Cat Survive? Nope

Memorable Quote: “You know, we might’ve fucked up the planet, sucking out all the oil, melting the ice caps, allowing ska music to flourish, but we made Coca-Cola, so goddamn it, people weren’t all bad.”

Recommended For: People who like apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction, but don’t like feeling hopelessly depressed.

My Rating: 5/5 stars


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