In Joe Hill’s The Fireman, a dangerous spore has infected humanity. Black, scaly patterns glittering with flecks of gold rise on the skin of those infected. It can be beautiful, but it is always a death sentence. Called Dragonscale, it might take days, it might take months, but the spore will inevitably combust, setting the victim on fire and, as it spreads, taking homes, hospitals, and cities with it. Harper is a nurse working around the clock to care for patients quarantined in a New Hampshire hospital. When Dragonscale roots itself in her body, she is prepared to accept death. Until she discovers she’s pregnant. The Fireman follows Harper’s journey coming to terms with the infection, discovering a growing community of survivors, and encountering the extreme results of humanity’s need for community colliding with society-shattering fear.
At the novel’s core, Hill is exploring the worst impulses of society to designate and destroy “others.” Fear towards Dragonscale leads to the formation of Cremation Crews, vigilante squads performing nightly raids to round up the infected and murder them. The growing hidden society of Camp Wyndham, the primary setting of the novel, populated by survivors of the scale, takes on increasingly cult-like features and turns against anyone unwilling to commit fully. Hill grapples with hatred and authoritarianism, and the steady march towards extremes which feels all too relevant in the current political discourse. As such, it is a predictably bleak story, with hope spots introduced and ultimately dashed by subterfuge and betrayals of trust. Nonetheless, The Fireman is not a horror story, as one might expect. While horrifying things happen, events are too spread out to satisfyingly build and maintain tension. Instead, the spotlight is on Harper’s tenacity and her budding romance with the titular Fireman. By the end of the book there are tones of a “found family” story, a small band of heroic characters fighting against the odds for a chance at a better life.
Unfortunately, the path to that point falters. Harper spends too many of the novel’s over 700 pages alone or away from the characters that are supposed to form her support network. Her deep romance with the Fireman seems to be an assumed quantity rather than a relationship that requires development. Renee Gilmonton, positioned as Harper’s closest friend, is woefully underutilized. Renee is a fiercely intelligent character, bouncing with ideas and banter when she appears, but is conspicuously absent for large sections of text. Her relationship with Nick, a deaf child, is best developed, shaping Harper as a mother figure. Despite 700 pages as potential building and proving ground, these relationships are largely taken for granted and given fleeting page time.
The plot itself is a slow burn, sparking into momentary action only to be stamped out again. Until the finale finally forces a shakeup, the story smolders under heavy exposition and ham-fisted foreshadowing. Almost as soon as Harper reaches Camp Wyndham, the narration and exposition pretty much suggest what and how things will go wrong. In an attempt to increase tension, several chapter endings offer a declaration of imminent catastrophe. For example, two characters will agree to continue a conversation later, only for the chapter to end by noting that one of them wouldn’t be able to. In my own reading experience, these clumsy cliffhangers and narrative asides only undercut the tension and serve as unnecessary flourish.
Nonetheless, the premise and development of the spore itself serves as a strong base. As the novel progresses, the Dragonscale transitions from a death sentence to a symbiotic partner, with abilities including forms of pyrokinesis and limited telepathy. Exploring these developments and threading it all together are some truly beautiful passages and character moments. There was enough going on to keep my interest alive, but not enough to fully engage or make me fall in love. When I closed the book and set it down, my ultimate impression could be summed up with, “Well, length isn’t everything.”