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Watching the world burn The Fireman'

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Joe Hill's latest a sweeping and compelling thriller

The concept of the apocalypse has long been a popular one in fiction. Exploring the possibilities of the end of the world is fallow ground for the imagination. And while the recent proliferation of these ideas has certainly led to more than a few watered-down offerings, there's still room for surprising and powerful stories to be told.

Joe Hill's 'The Fireman' (William Morrow, $28.99) is a sweeping, haunting tale of civilization's collapse and the hard-fought individual battles that must be won in order to survive. The world Hill gives us is one that is filled with horrors, but also with moments of humanity.

A plague of unclear origin has struck mankind. The disease named Draco Incendia Trychophyton by scientist, but called Dragonscale by most springs from a wildly infectious and deadly spore. The infection shows itself by way of black and gold marks all over the body marks that could be considered beautiful were it not for the fate they indicate.

Carriers of Dragonscale are doomed, you see. Doomed to burst into flames and die an agonizing death. There is no antidote. There is no cure.

This is the world in which Harper Grayson lives. In her former life, she was a Mary Poppins-obsessed school nurse. But with the rise of Dragonscale, she devoted herself to caring for the afflicted, treating hundreds before the hospital, sadly and inevitably, burned to the ground.

Alas, Harper winds up with markings of black and gold. She and her husband Jakob made a pact that they wouldn't allow themselves to burn alive if infected, but there's a problem Harper is pregnant. She wants to live, for the baby's sake if not her own. Jakob snaps, ultimately abandoning Harper to her own devices as society crumbles around them.

Fear and anger leads to the rise of self-proclaimed Cremation Squads glorified lynch mobs devoted to tracking down and brutally exterminating any and all of the infected. Rumors of internment camps soon outnumber any murmurings of hope. Essential services are all but nonexistent and wildfires run unchecked across thousands upon thousands of acres.

But Harper is not alone.

A stranger she met once upon a time, back when things were just beginning to fall apart, finds his way back into her life at a particularly opportune time. This man, clad in a fireman's jacket and wielding a halligan bar, devotes his days to saving the sick and exacting vengeance on those who do wrong. It is only with his help that Harper can hope to save her own life and that of her unborn child.

'The Fireman' is an energetic and sprawling book, packed with prose that sometimes burns as hot as the story it tells. Despite its heft well over 700 pages the narrative plays out with almost shocking speed. Too often with books of this size, we see overwritten stretches that can derail narrative cohesion and disrupt the overarching flow. There's none of that here; even with such a sizeable text, every plot point, every action, every word feels vital and necessary to the whole.

Take the world-building, for instance. It would be easy to get bogged down in the minutiae when creating a story such as this one, but Hill deftly weaves necessary exposition throughout; he adds threads to the narrative as needed, but does so via a variety of means, keeping everything fresh and engaging. The details are in service to the story, rather than the story being built around the details. The end result is a backdrop that is an ideal match for the tale being spun.

Literary apocalypses are at their best when they focus primarily on the struggles of the individual in the context of the grander scale. That's exactly what Joe Hill does with 'The Fireman,' using the plight of one woman as the entry point to a vast world filled with horrors both known and unknown. Small stakes can sometimes be the most powerful ones; that's certainly the case here.

In Harper, Hill has given his story a capable and intelligent protagonist, but one with her share of imperfections. In truth, there's a depth and complexity to most of the dramatis personae here that far exceeds what you ordinarily see. There are none of the 'white knight' types you sometimes see in books of this ilk; sure, there's plenty in the way of good and evil, but Hill never hesitates to work with the greyness in between. In times of horror and desperation, even good people can (and sometimes must) do bad things.

'The Fireman' is the sort of book that has all the makings of a genre classic. It is smart, scary and shot through with veins of sharp commentary and dark humor. It acknowledges that when the end is nigh, sinners might be the enemy, but sometimes they are no worse than the saints.

In the end, if the world is burning, who else do you call but a fireman?


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