Let me just state, first and foremost, I really loved this book. I haven’t read that much of Joe Hill’s stuff, but I obviously know who he’s related to, and I’m a super-fan of King. Which is also why it was pretty difficult to ignore the similarities between this dystopian novel, and The Stand. They’re completely different, yet a lot alike.
The similarities though… Not only do we have a deaf boy called Nick, but we also have a guy called Harold who hated everyone in the community and kept a diary filled with his hateful thoughts. A little meta, but Hill didn’t just draw from his father’s work. Mary Poppins had a significant role, and even J.K. Rowling was dragged in. It was a little disconcerting, but to be fair, these people are pretty big in real life, and it wouldn’t be weird for me to come across conversations about them or their works. I guess that’s what made it disconcerting… it made it feel like this book is set in our world… not a fictional one.
In the Fireman, we see a dystopia where people get infected with Dragonskin (I actually prefer it’s medical name; Draco Incendia Trychophyton, which has a beautiful, almost poetic ring to it), which seems to cause whoever is infected to spontaneously combust. Understandably, there’s a panic, and all kinds of shit goes down. What’s left is split between the healthy and the infected, with the healthy paranoid about staying that way.
This, of course, brings out the worst of humanity, and you have people who embrace their own sociopathic tendencies and use the legitimate fear of others to fan the flames of hysteria. Of course, after that it’s easy to justify genocide… you know, it’s for the good of everyone else.
We follow Harper, our Mary-Sue main character who is obsessed with Mary Poppins and tries to emulate her in everything she does, who gets infected with Dragonscale pretty early on. She is also pregnant, and determined to be delivered of her baby because she’s sure he’ll be healthy. Her husband doesn’t agree, and in trying to escape him and the people who kill the infected “for the greater good”, she is found by The Fireman and taken to a community of infected people. Here, she finds out that being infected doesn’t necessarily mean you are going to combust, as long as you give the spore what it craves… Oxytocin. I immediately wondered why this is not bigger news, but of course, scared people don’t necessarily listen to reason. Especially if they have a figurehead telling them what to think and how to feel and what to do.
The funny thing is… even in this community of infected, that same mentality prevails. To be perfectly blunt, it’s more like a cult, but at first, everyone was really good and accepting. Of course, this doesn’t last, and because Harper doesn’t want to blindly go along with everyone and join the crazy, she gets ostracized. The worst, or maybe the best, thing this novel does, is make it easy to understand how it can happen. When you’re scared, you look for someone to look up to, someone who will protect you. You’ll go looking for acceptance and security, holding on to even the slightest hint of it with a fanatic zeal. If someone or something threatens that thin membrane of security, you’ll do anything to stop it from breaking through. Anything.
The Fireman is different than the rest of the affected people though. While they can only keep the dragonscale from turning them into human blowtorches, he seems to be able to control it. He doesn’t want to share how he does it though… he’s a bit of an ass actually. But also likeable. I see David Tennant in his role if there’s a movie deal in the future…
While he does his fair share of saving the day, Harper isn’t your average damsel in distress. In fact, she generally goes around saving herself and everyone else, including The Fireman. Inevitably, they fall in love, and while I liked both characters separately, I wasn’t much of a fan of the way Hill wrote their relationship. It felt kind of forced and desperate, which it might well have been. Luckily that wasn’t a huge factor and I could look the other way while they bumbled through a very unconvincing romance…
There was a lot going on in this book, and I guess it wasn’t perfect. But I very much enjoyed the story. I loved that nothing was rushed, and he took his time to get the story out there. Sure, most of the time it was pretty obvious what was going on and what would happen, but it’s always been about the journey for me. A lot of times, that’s where authors go wrong. They think they have to rush. Sure, if the story ain’t any good, rush away, but with something like this, it’s like a slow burn (excuse the pun), and if you try and force the flames too quickly, you’re more likely to smother and kill it.
More than anything else, this book made me fear for humanity, because let’s face it, this kind of mentality is alive and well, even in today’s age where there isn’t an obvious threat like disease. But if someone convinces you that there is a threat, but that they can help if you give them the power… well, people can be gullible. And horrible.