Gollancz, out 7 June
A deadly spore causes those infected to burn up – and society burns with them…
The short version of this review is simple. For the last thirty years there have been two post-apocalyptic novels which I have reread repeatedly: Stephen King’s The Stand (original version not the remix) and Robert McCammon’s Swan Song. To that list I’ve now added a third for regular return – Joe Hill’s The Fireman. Like those two books, it’s a tale told on an epic scale, but one which has a truly human story at its heart.
It’s a thick book, but I suspect you’ll power through it quickly, each chapter ending enticing you just to turn one more page until you realise it’s got dark and it’s time for sleep. Hill notes in his acknowledgements that the science of the spore is based in fact – giving the book a very Michael Crichton-esque feel at times – and its effects on the population are based on close observation of human nature. At the centre of the tale is Nurse Harper, who selflessly treats the afflicted but inevitably becomes infected herself just as she finds she’s pregnant – and finds her life falling apart around her when her husband finds it impossible to cope. Early on, Harper encounters the Fireman, an Englishman who has an unnatural relationship with the ’scale, as the infection becomes known. Thanks to him, she becomes part of Camp Wyndham, a hideout for the infected, who have to try to remain out of sight or else they’ll be killed. And that’s where her problems really begin.
Hill introduces a large cast of characters for the book, while keeping the story told through Harper’s point of view (with occasional helpful pieces of exposition from a journal she finds). Harper models herself on Julie Andrews (sometimes almost irritatingly so), looking for the good in people despite the circumstances in which she finds herself, and you’ll cheer on the odd occasion when she can’t maintain her own standards. Nearly all the characters have shades of grey – Harper’s husband really being the only one of the dozen or so centrally featured who feels a bit too one-dimensional – and of course the urge to survive pushes people in ways that they might not dream for a moment they’d go, both bad and good.
There are some incredibly effective sequences throughout the book – from an ambush on an ambulance to Harper hiding in her own house – leavened with some dark humour, and moments of pure horror. Hill piles the agony on for his heroes, unrelenting right to the last page – but you will be willing them onwards, even beyond that. It’s Hill’s strongest piece of writing to date, thick with allusions, balancing the banality of ordinary day to day living with the exigencies of a world that’s falling apart, and credibly charting the emotional seesaw of teenage years and pregnancy for people who could literally burn up if they lose control.
Verdict: Powerful, engaging writing with an incredible optimism at its heart. 10/10