Quite frankly, I’ve struggled to write this review of THE FIREMAN.
There was so much I liked about it at the outset, so much that was clever and entertaining and humane – but the whole tailed off so badly, that my over-riding emotion at the end was disappointment.
However, I didn’t want to write a negative review, one that pulls apart its flaws for all to see, as for most of its long length I actually enjoyed it. There’s a lot of really good stuff here. But it’s also the case that if I was asked to recommend it, that recommendation would come with so many caveats it would surely end up standing as a non-recommendation.
Firemen put out fires, so if you have a novel whose heat and intensity suddenly extinguishes, a fireman seems an apt figure to be standing over it.
Although pretty much set in the now, THE FIREMAN is post-apocalyptic novel about a terrible disease named Dragonscale, which carves bright tattoos into a person’s skin to make them instantly recognisable and causes it’s victims to spontaneously combust. A huge chunk of humanity succumbs to it, while the rest are forced to protect themselves anyway they can.
The narrative centres on Harper Willows, a young infected nurse and the new life she has to create herself once the Dragonscale forces her into hiding.
This is where the book is at its best, creating a story that is undoubtedly epic and yet keeping it at the same time utterly personal. The world Harper moves to is vividly captured, the characters she meets so beautifully drawn and the way the story develops feels like watching a chess-master move all the pieces together.
There is a logical place for the book to finish about three quarters of the way through, but Hill doesn’t take it. I don’t mind that, as I appreciate books which confound expectations in their structure. But unfortunately that last quarter just loses the passion and spark of what went before and the book becomes a trek to the finish. A trudge for both the readers and characters, that even late twists or outrageous coincidences can’t save.
It’s a shame – as there’s so much that’s great in these pages, I felt almost hurt I didn’t walk away from the book feeling more delighted with the experience than I did.
Joe Hill is, of course, Stephen King’s son.
A fact I wouldn’t feel the need to mention if THE FIREMAN didn’t have resounding echoes of his father right the way through it. I noticed the phrase “forgotten the face of his father” from THE DARK TOWER series, as well as a reference to the beverage Nozz-a-La from the same books. It’s twenty odd years since I read THE STAND, so I’m not overly familiar with it, but it does seem from a little routing around on the inter-web as if there are numerous parallels between the two books.
It’s both curious and a shame as clearly Hill is really talented in his own right, but heading down this route it seems he could just end up a footnote to his father’s work. Not really a Dirk Cussler, but certainly not a Martin Amis. And that would be disappointing, as I really think he is good enough to carve out a place all of his own.