Quote of the book: ‘A thousand prayers every minute everywhere and what does God ever say back? Nothing! Because silence never lies. Silence is God’s final advantage. Silence is the purest form of harmony. Everyone ought to try it. Put a stone in your mouth instead of a lie. Put a rock in your mouth instead of gossip. Bury the liars and the wicked under stones until they say no more. More weight, hallelujah.’

From the beginning, let me stress that I really wanted this book to be a success. The front cover caught my eye, the idea and blurb caught my imagination and the author himself caught my attention. However, despite all this promise I have to say that I was grossly disappointed by The Fireman.

The story begins with much promise. Hill cleverly invents a previously unseen contagion and accurately conceives a troubled world that deals with the gradual and deadly spread of this virus worldwide. He plays on 9/11 and other recent world events to effectively portray society as we know it coming apart at the seams. There is a palpable sense of fear as characters watch the news and witness their social circles tighten. Phones go dead, electricity disappears and neighbours hide behind curtains but despite all this, I am of the opinion, that he never quite sees this early good set-up work through to a full scale societal collapse.

Early on, it became hard to stomach many of the characters in this novel due to their cardboard cut out nature; notably the ditsy wife, the angry failed author husband and the villain with the raspy voice. The real disappointment comes however with the introduction of the book’s titular character, The Fireman. The blurb tells me to expect ‘a madman afflicted with Dragonscale who has learned to wield flame itself, using it as a shield for the ill and a weapon in the service of the wronged.’ The reality is a whimsical Englishman who spends most of the novel either sulking on his own island and then occasionally appears to create some nifty fireworks. The hero that is given is not the hero that was promised and so for largely this reason the novel falls flat on its face.

There are flashes of good dialogue sprinkled throughout the book but there is also far too much lazy, action film language. The lowlight for me came with a characters exclamation of ‘He got away! The guy! The fucking fuck who made the smoke!’ This phrase was buried in a paragraph of further pointless expletives. This paragraph buried beneath a whole book of flimsy wordplay. The only likeable character that I found in the book disappointingly ended up in a coma and this inevitably ended the possibility of any further clever dialogue.

Overall the book was far too traceable and predictable. Bad enough that Dragonscale could be construed as a Game of Thrones reference, our characters end up in a survival camp complete with elected Security Council and nominated spiritual leaders ala The Walking Dead. Another literary reference would point towards a church scene near the end of the book that could also be likened to Max Brook’s church scene in his novel World War Z.  

The story’s main setting also really bugged me. It somehow remained hidden and undiscovered despite being located just a short walk from the initial neighbourhood of the novel. Even when characters shot fire arrows up into the night sky for fun, the camp remained a secret! Repeatedly Hill used the phrase ‘the eye in the steeple sees all the people’ like an inside joke and this also became tiresome as the story progress.

Some readers might appreciate and love these references but I found that they only added to the predictable nature of the story. Hill had a bit of fun namedropping celebrities (Martha Quinn, Michael Fassbender, George Clooney) and fellow authors (Samuel Beckett, Margaret Atwood, J.K. Rowling,Cormac McCarthy) as well as several musical nods, but these seemed to be copied and pasted in as opposed to adding any real value to the story. That being said, Hill’s opinions on religion and spirituality (see below) do shine brightest and provide the novel with some of its best quotes. Eerily, his work echoes David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks in its view on how religion will interact with the end of the world as we know it.

At 752 pages, this book is a sizeable commitment and any reader who embarks on a tome of that size, demands a bit of reward in return. Unfortunately, Joe Hill’s biggest crime is that despite this impressive size, he surprised me very little. I knew where this story was going and there was no real twist at the end. I have a feeling that he can do better, however, and hope to see him return with something stronger in the future.

Would I recommend this book to a friend?

No. Life is too short for big, bad books.

If you want a proper fast paced end of the world chiller to keep you on your toes, I strongly recommend Blake Crouch’s Run. If you want an even more ghastly tale but more of a slow burner, read Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.

Afterthoughts

For those of you still out of the loop, Joe Hill’s real name is Joseph Hillstrom King. His mother and father need no introduction so the future is still bright for this young, purebred author!

The final few pages tell us that the film rights for this book have already been sold to 21st Century Fox so maybe it’s me who has it all wrong!

This is the second big thriller that I pulled from the pick of this summer’s reads and once more I was disappointed. Greg Hurwitz’ Orphan X also flattered greatly only to end up deceiving. Two summers ago I read Lee Child’s first Jack Reacher book, The Killing Floor, and also could not grasp how these books sell so well. Am I missing something? The last popular thriller I read, enjoyed and still recommend is Terry Hayes’ I Am Pilgrim.

Joe Hill’s random thoughts on religion throughout the book

A thousand prayers every minute everywhere and what does God ever say back? Nothing! Because silence never lies. Silence is God’s final advantage. Silence is the purest form of harmony. Everyone ought to try it. Put a stone in your mouth instead of a lie. Put a rock in your mouth instead of gossip. Bury the liars and the wicked under stones until they say no more. More weight, hallelujah.’

‘It’s easy to dismiss religion as bloody, cruel and tribal. I’ve done it myself. But it isn’t religion that’s wired that way – it’s man himself. At bottom every faith is a form of instruction in common decency. Different textbooks in the same class. Don’t they all teach that to do for others feels better than to do for yourself? That someone else’s happiness need not mean less happiness for you?’

‘The Incas were right to worship the sun…God is fire. Combustion is the one inarguable blessing. A tree, oil, coal, a man, a civilization, a soul. They’ve all got to burn sometime. The warmth made by their passing may be a salvation to others. The ultimate value of the Bible, or the Constitution, or any work of literature, really, is that they all burn very well, and for a while they keep back the cold.’