By Joe Hill
Paperback, 752 pages
2016, William Morrow
A plague, commonly referred to as Dragonscale, has swept the world, leaving victims covered swirling patterns of scales that will eventually ignite, burning the host alive. Harper Grayson is a nurse, working in a hospital to assist the afflicted when she catches the ‘Scale herself. Initially, she’d make a death pact with her husband, should they become infected, but when she realizes she’s pregnant she decides she wants to live. When her crazed husband tries to kill her, Harper is saved by a man who can set himself on fire at will and she follows him to a camp of refugees who embrace the ‘Scale and seek to survive the end of the world.
Whoa. I figured I’d like this beast of a book, but I never expected it to be so damn addicting!
I already know I enjoy Hill’s work and when I bought The Fireman in June (man, those Book Outlet sales are my kryptonite) I had every intention of reading it right away (she said, again, about every book ever) and, well, we know how that turned out.
Then a few friends on Instagram (Simon and Nils) started a group read and I’m so glad they did! Who knows how long I would have let this awesome book gather dust on my shelves otherwise?! (Years, my other ignored books scream at me.)
The tone of the story had me interested immediately and the action starts right away. In the first scenes of the book, you get to see Dragonscale in action. The mysterious plague covers a person’s body in shimmering patterns much like scales and often the patterns are beautiful. I can’t say I’ve ever read about a potentially world-ending disease that sounded lovely to look at.
Harper is the living embodiment (well, living literary embodiment…) of Mary Poppins – hopeful, positive, always doing her best to care for and cheer up others – and boy, did she drive me friggen nuts. Throughout everything that happens in her book, Harper almost never loses her cool. That might seem admirable, but at times I desperately needed her to have a damn backbone. It was unbelievable that someone could be so forgiving (or was it gullible?) after all that Harper went through. Ugh.
Jakob, on the other hand, was perfectly despicable. He fit the crazed husband role to a T. I knew I didn’t like him from the start because he refers to Harper as “babygirl” – like, ew. What grown woman wants to be called babygirl? He’s got the added level of despicability of being a writer with a rubbish novel six years in the making. He made a great villain.
There’s a lot happening in this beast of a book, but it’s divided into nine books and each of those is divided into several small, easily readable chapters. I don’t think I’ve said “one more chapter” more times to myself than when I was reading this book.
My readalong group discussed quite a lot – SPOILERS REMOVED – and a fun new thing for me was casting the characters. Early votes for the Fireman were for Tom Hardy (ok, maybe just Nils and I wanted that) but I eventually morphed my mental portrayal of him into a mix of JJ Field and David Tennant. We had a lot of good options for Harper but she remained a sort of amorphous blend of bland, cheery young blondes.
Upon reading the ending I was full of rage, but in hindsight, I suppose it makes sense. This book kept me thinking and the ending was no exception. There’s also something satisfying about unsatisfying endings if you know what I mean (well, some unsatisfying ones; others are just terrible.)
Anyway! I highly recommend this book if you’re looking for a creative spin on the whole plague-that-is-ending-the-world thing and if you like Hill’s other work, I’m thinking you’ll like this too!
**Pro Tip: Read to the end of the credits page – there’s a segment called CODA with an extra paragraph of the story! I would have missed it if not for my group pointing it out.