If you have yet to read the works of Joe hill, this is a good place to start.  If on the other hand you have, this is something new. What it comes down to is: read this book.

The dystopian theme has waxed and waned recently and those who love it I feel you, those who’ve had their fill of crumbling cities; water shortages; food shortages; isolated societies; plagues and the inevitable saviour, I feel you too.  However, sometimes a book comes along with some of those components and creates a whole new beautiful structure that you can’t put down.

The first thing you need to know about The Fireman is to take the title literally.  It’s about a fireman, sort of.  It is also about a plague, sort of.  What set this book apart for me is how the plague becomes its own character.  The technical name for it is Draco Incendia Trichophyton thankfully shortened to Dragonscale and it manifests as black loops and whorls with hints of gold that appears on the skin until it begins to smoke, then smoulder from hair, nostrils until internal incineration.

All this takes place around Harper.  Three months pregnant and symptomatic.  Against her controlling husband’s wishes she decides to work in a hospital with the ‘symptomatic normals’ (just markings but with the potential to escalate) and the smouldering’ (more than a possibility of combustion). Harper’s information from working at the hospital: that there can be some measure of control and there’s been no evidence of transmission is the reason she decides to keep her baby regardless of the markings on her body.

In comes the The Fireman, symptom free, in full gear including a halligan – long iron bar with a hatchet or hooks and a claw at either end –  carrying a young deaf boy named Nick with no symptoms of ‘scale but internal injuries.  Things escalate and eventually the boy is taken care of.  Unfortunately, one of the side effects of ‘scale is the panic it causes those who constantly smoulder.  The thought of when the smouldering will lead to eventual flames creates hysteria and when one starts to burn the fire spreads to all those infected and ultimately those not.  That is how the hospital burns and Harper is left with no option but to return home.  Not a good idea.  Her husband has a different theory on how to deal with a pregnant infected wife.

Things happen and Harper encounters the fireman again who takes her to a place of safety, to a group of people who’ve created a life for themselves away from burning cities, a hidden community where those with Dragonscale walk around with somewhat beautiful, char-like tribal tattoos and have no other symptoms.  Harper is welcomed and feels her decision to keep her child is validated. As for the fireman, he is someone who comes and goes, protects them, teaches them to protect themselves, protects his secrets and he has good ones.  Harper starts to feel safe, wary of the cultish behaviour, but safe. Yet as those of us who know, there is no ‘safe’ in dystopia.  Enter Cremation Squads; a vengeful husband and a not so peace loving community. Those trying to survive: Harper, Nick, Dragonscale and The Fireman.

I am also delighted to mention that clichéd moments don’t live round here. As I’ve said, if you have read Joe Hill do not let this put you off. His novels cover more than one genre so if you’ve read NOS4R2 and felt the need for a night light, this is nothing like it. It will surprise you.  It is everything you’d want in a work of tilted-world fiction. Or a psychological thriller or a connection to the characters or pace or moments of skop, skiet en … The kind of book that makes you have to re-read passages because you’ve read too fast when things got exciting.  Most importantly it is a well written, imaginative novel worthy of its size.

Joe Hill is the author of The Heart-Shaped Box; 20th Century Ghosts; Horns and NOS4R2

Reviewed by: Margot Adams

Margot ‘Madadams’:  former bookseller; constantly mucking around in the book trade; intrepid explorer of all genres; possibly obsessed with Stephen King and has some strong opinions often worryingly so.