Book Review: The Fireman by Joe Hill

“The Fireman is a massive achievement in modern genre fiction.”

As with all good writers, Joe Hill’s vision is expanding as his career goes on. Building on the success of 2013’s NOS4R2, Hill pushes newer, bigger territory in his latest book The Fireman.

Harper Grayson is a kind-hearted school nurse, doing her best to hold herself, her relationship and those around her together as the world rapidly succumbs to the deadly plague of Dragonscale that is literally burning the world to the ground. Dragonscale is a spore that, once caught, leads to the host spontaneously bursting into flames. No one is safe, celebrities burn within the first few chapters and society falls to its knees as ashes fall all around it.

When Joe Hill is interviewed about his writing and his process, he states that he lives in constant fear of his readers losing focus and attention on the book and wandering off to watch cat videos on YouTube. He aims to stop this by making sure that he grabs the reader by the throat from the start and doesn’t let them go. With The Fireman he has achieved this. The speed and violence and fury which surrounds the world being wiped out by fire and Dragonscale is breathtaking. Whilst the majority of it happens off-page, its impact is felt by all of the characters and translates to the reader.

The Fireman is by far Hill’s most ambitious work to date. His previous novels have been smaller in scale, focussing on one individual character’s struggle or story. With The Fireman, Hill takes on the world and burns it to the ground, ensuring high stakes and consequences for all of his characters.

There are two key factors in how Hill makes The Fireman such a success, firstly the pathogen Dragonscale, is a well thought out, deadly yet intriguing disease. It has the blunt force of a typical ‘Z Virus’, destroying everything in its path, but it does have a deeper, more detailed place in the story where it facilitates the plot rather than being a device for mayhem.

Secondly are Hill’s characters. And this is where his real strength lies. From Harper, who is a fantastic female protagonist containing a mixture of strength, vulnerability and likability. However, unlike a lot of authors, Hill’s secondary characters are just as layered and nuanced. Every character that Harper comes into contact with has a fully developed backstory, clearly defined motivations and secrets to keep. In addition to this, Hill’s dialogue is on point. Young people speak like young people; old people sound old. He has paid clear attention to defining the voice of the characters and it pays off when they converse, making their interactions believable and absorbing.

The narrative itself is never less than compelling, an undercurrent of drama pulls the reader along from the off. Hill balances numerous storylines with skill and aplomb, whether it is Harper’s relationship, the constant post-apocalyptic need for supplies or the danger posed by the Cremation Crews who hunt down the infected. Hill manages to sneak in some seriously nasty and action-packed scenes among the day-to-day business of survival, alternately inducing dread and calm.

That said, the only misstep of the whole book is the sheer length of it. Whilst the conversations and the prose are an absolute joy, there are times where the story feels a touch baggy and could have benefitted from a trim. Some of this may be down to the nine book structure contained within the story, embellishing the traditional three act structure. This is not to say that The Fireman loses the reader’s attention at any point, however with so much going on as the world burns, there are a few moments where the reader will want to feel the heat on their face.

The Fireman is Hill’s darkest output yet. His short fiction and other novels contain an element of humour and brevity that can sometimes detract from the horror on display. Whilst there are many turns of phrase that bring a smile here, there is nothing that detracts from the overall bleakness of this novel, which is in itself something to be admired.

The Fireman is a massive achievement in modern genre fiction, a throwback to the 1980s world of doorstop horror novels yet handled with a delicacy and flair that elevates it above anything else being produced within the genre today. Hill’s prose smoulders throughout, indulging and horrifying the reader and driving the narrative through a world rapidly turning to ash and cinders around them. Hill’s writing has reached an epic scale without losing any of the personal touches that made his earlier work such a joy to behold. The Fireman shows one of the genre’s best talents burning at his absolute brightest, torching the world and keeping readers away from cat videos on YouTube for the foreseeable future. A must read.


Publisher: Gollancz
Hardcover: (768pp)
Release Date: 16 May 2016

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