Draco Incendia Trychophyton—also known as Dragonscale—is a deadly spore that causes people to spontaneously combust. Theories on its origin range from the melting ice caps to biological weaponry to a simple evolutionary turn. Elaborate—beautiful, even—black and gold tattoo-like markings identify those who are infected. Because there is often no warning before a person ignites and there is no cure, paranoia and hysteria spread like, well, wildfire. Eventually, cities burn and civil order dissolves, with ruthless and sinister Quarantine Patrols and Cremation Crews driving the infected into hiding.
The titular character of Joe Hill’s fourth novel (following, most recently, NOS4A2), John Rookwood, is not an actual fireman, but a mysterious, charismatic Englishman. He wears a firefighter’s uniform because it not only hides his markings, but also allows him to be in the open without arousing suspicion. The heart of the book, though, is Harper Grayson, an elementary school nurse with compassion, gumption and an affinity for Mary Poppins. Harper is infected, frightened, alone and pregnant when John leads her to an underground community of infected folk who show her that it is possible to live in harmony with the spore. Soon, though, it becomes clear that safety does not always lie in numbers and that there is as much to fear inside the camp as outside.
With plenty of pop-culture references and playfully meta moments (like when characters discuss what they would do if they were in a movie or book), The Fireman is a bona fide, post-apocalyptic page-turner that’s equal parts touching and pulse-pounding, surprising and awe-inducing. The icing on the metaphorical cake? Easter eggs referencing his father Stephen King’s works—ranging from Hill’s use of “shine” as a verb of the supernatural variety to one character murderously swinging a shovel “like a croquet mallet”—pepper the book, delighting this fan of both writers.