The Fireman by Joe Hill
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
To make a long(ish) review short (and after completing this 747-page behemoth, I have a fresh appreciation of brevity) this book is basically Joe Hill's version of The Stand.
The story leans more towards the science fiction end of the spectrum than horror. There are a few elements that might be construed as supernatural, and they seem a bit out of place with the rest of the narrative. Instead of The Stand's virus, we have a spore that inhabits human hosts and eventually, in most cases, results in spontaneous combustion. This inevitably leads to the breakdown of society and the usual attendant horrors; anarchy, mass death and starvation, and roving tribes of people exterminating the "burners," the infected.
Unlike Stephen King's magnum opus, Joe Hill keeps a tight focus on one character, nurse Harper Grayson. He makes it a point to characterize her as an ordinary Everywoman. Harper is not some kind of kickass urban fantasy heroine, but rather someone trying her best to cope with a terrifying time. She becomes pregnant at the beginning of the outbreak (the timeline of the story is the length of her pregnancy), and nearly the entire nine months is spent running and hiding from her crazy, vicious SOB of a husband, who threw a fit when Harper wouldn't join him in his planned suicide pact after they became infected. (Jakob is a bit over the top as a villain, actually.) After her first escape from Jakob, she falls in with a group of infected people who are learning to control the spore; apparently the hormone oxytocin can convince it not to incinerate its host. (Some people, including the titular character, demonstrate an impressive cooperation with the spore, which gives them incredible flame-generating powers. Unfortunately, some of this stretched my suspension of disbelief to the breaking point.) This group gradually turns into a rather frightening cult, which takes up most of the middle part of the book. There is a lot of fighting, running and hiding, and a great many character deaths (including the completely unnecessary death of a cat--come on, Joe. That was just gratuitous and wrong). I suppose this is intended to keep the reader on edge, George RR Martin style: none of our supposed protagonists are safe. It got damned tiresome after 700 pages.
In fact, I will say right here that 2-300 pages of the book could have been chopped out with no great loss. This is not to say that Joe Hill is a bad writer. To the contrary, his prose is excellent. He writes good action scenes. I don't think his characterizations are as compelling as his father's; he seemed to be setting a few scenes up to make the reader cry, or at least tear up a bit. I did none of that. (Except when Mr Truffles died, and it's telling that I felt worse over the death of a cat then the demise of the Fireman.) I did finish this book, but it took more than a week and I was dragging at the end.
So: very much a mixed bag. If Joe Hill ever writes a normal-sized book, I might take a chance on that. But I'm not diving into one of his doorstops again.
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