(Reviewer’s note: Starting today, I’m going to be doing things differently. For those of you familiar with my format, you know I have the body of the review for those of you who like in-depth dissections and/or goofy-ass satire, and then I have an In summation wrap up and a Final Judgment for the tl;dr crowd. Now I’m adding a Spoiler Discussion section. At the ass-end of this post, you will find a spoiler tag. Click on this tag only if you’ve read the book I’m reviewing. On with the review.)
It is with a heavy heart that I must give this book three stars. Last night, I was certain it would be four stars, but after much consideration, I just couldn’t do it. Hopefully, I can effectively explain why.
Before I ever started this book, I said to myself, “Self, you’re not going to mention Stephen King or The Stand in your review. Hill has proven himself as his own author, and he gained an audience before anyone knew he was King’s son. So, yeah, don’t mention that shit because to do so would make you an asshole. Cool? Cool.”
Well fuck me. I can’t do that. Yes, The Fireman is Joe Hill’s book, but it is so packed full of Stephen King Easter eggs and nods to The Stand that it is impossible for me not to talk about them. So I will get them out of the way up front. Damn near every chapter of this book has a reference to Stephen King. The book is nothing like King’s post-apocalyptic masterpiece, but it is stuffed to the brim with plot points and characters that mirror King’s novel. But this is not to say that you’re missing something if you haven’t read The Stand(well, you’re missing a lot, considering it’s a fantastic book, but that’s not the point I’m trying to make). Let’s say you haven’t read The Stand (shame on you) and you decide to pick up The Fireman. If you do so, you’ll have a complete, thrilling experience with no confusion, because the Easter eggs are hidden in the way Easter eggs should be hidden. In such a way as to make fans giddy and those not in the know not feel confused. For instance: there’s a character named Nick in this book. Nick is a deaf kid. Nick Andros from The Stand was also deaf. If you haven’t read King’s book, you’re not missing anything. Every single Easter egg in this book is like that. Unlike some authors (myself included), Hill never makes you feel as if you’re missing something. I dig that very much. I had a fucking blast finding all the references, and my only complaint about the amount of Easter eggs is that Hill only dropped one for his own work. I would have loved to see something about Judas Coyne or Charlie Manx or the murder of a girl named Merrin or a couple people discussing an inflatable boy or a nod to a horror story about the Buttonboy or a comic titled Locke & Key. Hill’s brand is full of fantastic lore and characters, and I feel as if he doesn’t value his own work as much as he values his father’s. Hill spent so much time and effort distancing himself from his father’s legacy so he could rise on the current of his own abilities, but now that everyone knows his real name is Joseph Hillstrom King, it feels like he’s playing second fiddle to Pops. That being said, this book shines with Hill’s love for his old man. I get it. I simply hope that, in the future, there’s more Hill in Hill’s work and less King.
Wow, I went off on a tangent. Back to the story.
The Fireman is an odd bird; a mixture of the beginning and middle of The Stand and Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. The former more so than the latter. That’s right: this book is more like Harry Potter than it is The Stand. Most of my reasoning will be in the Spoiler Discussion at the end of this post, but suffice it to say, the book is built on the same chassis. Hill even mentions Rowling in his dedication, thanking her for showing him how to tell his story. In my opinion, though, Hill tells the better story. But, there are certain sections that outright steal from Rowling’s book. Some might call these tributes, but because Hill’s story strongly depends on certain plot points he borrowed from Rowling, I call it stealing. Once again, more on that in the Spoiler Discussion section. Because there is so much in this book Hill got from other sources, I cannot give the book a perfect score. I didn’t imagine I would ever say this about a Joe Hill book, but the amount of unoriginal ideas in this novel is staggering. The more I think about it, the more it feels like Armada, by Ernest Cline, only better written and not so obnoxiously obvious with its pop culture referencing. Hill’s tributes are subtle, but there are so many of them they start to form a pile you cannot ignore.
That being said, The Fireman is highly readable. One of the most well written books I’ve read this year. His prose sings, its so well tuned. Even the lulls engage the reader, and I never felt as if I was reading information I could do without.
A note on the hardcover version: It’s fucking gorgeous. There’s almost imperceptible dots of ash on every page, but they never interfere with the readability of the words. I dig the cover, too, which is a perfect blend of gloss and matte finish. The attention to detail is stunning. So nice.
And everything else I want to talk about is spoiler related, so if you’ve read this one, I’ll see you in the Spoiler Discussion.
In summation: While unoriginal to the point it becomes predictable, the book is a fun time. I want to see Hill go back to his own brand next time, though, instead of playing along the path of the beam. I hope that he’ll continue to build on King’s lore instead of stealing from it. There’s nothing wrong with a tribute as long as it’s transformative in nature. Anything less is stealing. And that’s what this felt like; a friendly robbery.
Final Judgment: Not entirely Hill’s creation.
Spoiler Discussion: Wherein I discuss and spoil The Fireman,The Stand, and Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.
Yo! How’s it going? Great book, huh? I enjoyed it, anyways. So, how much referencing did Hill do? Lemme count the ways:
1. Deaf character named Nick is obvious reference to Nick Andros from The Stand. See also: Asshole/traitor character named Harold Cross/Harold Lauder of The Stand and the pregnant Harper Francis “Frannie” Grayson/the pregnant Francis “Frannie” Goldsmith from The Stand.
2. Twice, Hill writes that a character “forgot the face of their father”, which is a reference to King’s Dark Tower series.
3. Hill describes those with Drangonscale as “shining”, which could be a loose reference to his father’s book The Shining. Also, in the dedication to The Shining, King says, “This is for Joe Hill King, who shines on.” In The Fireman, Hill says in his dedication, “For Ethan John King, who burns bright.”
4. A character named Mindy shouts “My life for…”, which is a reference to Trashcan Man in The Stand who was wont to say, “My life for you!” Although Mindy does not say “you”, she uses actual character names.
5. There’s a face in the fire ala Sirius Black in the Harry Potter books. Other Potter plot points are: female dictator-type character who is unbending and ruthless; much teen angst from Allie; a secret society that might as well be called the Order of the Phoenix because The Fireman creates an actual fucking phoenix with his powers; a wizard (in this case a burner) coming into their own and learning how to use their powers; and so on. This book really is Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix just with a brand new paint job. Sad part is, I never would have noticed if Hill hadn’t said, “J.K. Rowling, whose stories showed me how to write this one” in the dedication page.
6. A reference to Tom Gordon from The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon. I know Tom Gordon is/was a real baseball player, but think about all the baseball players in the world. Don’t you find it funny that Hill chose to use him of all people?
7. Nozz-a-la soda is a nod to King’s Dark Tower series, which puts Hill’s book on the path of the beam.
9. Flaming hand of God saves the day. I don’t care if in Hill’s book Nick makes the hand, this is an obvious nod to how King ends The Stand.
8. John Rookwood’s fire truck falls into a collapsed overpass much like Stu Redman of The Stand falls into one in King’s book. Both men break their leg and are unable to go forward of their own power. John does continue the journey, but must be dragged, whereas Stu is left behind. This entire ending was also reminiscent of Roland’s battle with infection in The Drawing of the Three.
9. CHRISTMASLAND!!! Finally, Hill references his own work!
To wrap up, if you guys didn’t read the credits at the end of the book, you really, really should. The story continues there, where we find out the real ending.
This has been fun. Thanks for joining me.