Welcome to what is going to be a negative review of the newest Joe Hill book, The Fireman. I waffled and seesawed about whether I should write a separate review for this book or leave it for my end-of-the-month wrap-up. Ultimately, I have to give this its own space, because I have too much to say about it. I wouldn’t want to bog down a wrap-up with this, so here we are. If you loved this book and don’t want to see someone pick it apart, definitely skip this. If you’re still interested, here we go.
My dislike of this book isn’t due to any single thing. There were many factors here that left me sour. Let’s start with what might end up being the most controversial one. This book, for whatever reason, clearly has a feminist theme. This is not a problem for me in theory. I consider myself a feminist, and I read feminist fiction from time to time. The issue was that it read like a man, who barely grasps what feminism is, trying to write a fictional manifesto. As if he was told that feminism means women are awesome no matter what they do and men are always disgusting, nasty villains (unless you’re Doctor Who… I’m getting to that). Women who do awful things are forgiven while men who do awful things are punished violently. If a man seems innocuous or innocent, unless he’s a child, he will be revealed to be some kind of monster, in some cases without any explanation in what’s clearly meant to be a “twist” but comes off as poor writing. It’s all very warped and heavy-handed and actually antithetical to feminism itself.
Now let’s get to the Doctor Who part. That’s who John AKA The Fireman basically is. Doctor Who with a new coat of paint. A thin one at that, because it was pretty transparent that Hill’s love of British TV informed John’s character entirely. This is a problem that spread throughout the book, not just with John. Harper is Frannie from The Stand, and there’s a moment where he socks you in the face with it so hard that it’s irritating. In fact, there are plenty of characters who are ersatz Stand characters. Nick, the deaf boy. Harold Cross, the sexist, junk-food-cramming smart guy. He mashes a few Dark Tower references in the mix, one that he repeats just to be sure we heard him, I guess.
What could have been cute and inviting for fans of Doctor Who and Stephen King becomes an obvious attempt to garner favoritism in the quickest, easiest way possible. These references aren’t sneaky. They’re so blatant and loud that they smack of creative bankruptcy. One of the reasons I’ve been a fan of Joe Hill from the beginning was because his ideas were off the beaten path. His characters were his own and not cut from anyone else’s cloth. I can’t say that here. The characters that are memorable are outright copies of characters done much better by other writers. Everyone else blends into this mash of who-cares.
This is also the longest shortest book ever. Let’s unpack that so it makes a bit more sense. The font was huge. The margins were huge. It’s as if the publishers wanted this to seem like it was 750 pages when it was closer to 600. In other words, not actually that epic with a lot of rushed plot points that should’ve been lingered on. By the same token, this book should’ve been 500 pages. For every interesting tidbit he rushed, there was something else he poured over and drew out that seemed entirely pointless. Stuffing the book with a romance that I simply wasn’t feeling. Letting the characters sit around and banter at each other when there was a real crisis going on. The sort of thing I expect from lesser writers but not Hill. And therein we have a book both too short and too long. Very frustrating.
While we’re on a roll, here’s a pet peeve. It’s something Stephen King does, but compared to this book, he does it sparingly. Ending a chapter or section of a book with a warning that BAD THINGS ARE COMING. For example, a character will say, “that’s okay, because we’ll be there soon.” Which is followed immediately by the line LITTLE DID THEY KNOW THEY’D NEVER GET THERE. He did this over and over and over. To the point that there was no tension. No suspense. I didn’t care. I knew everything that would happen a chapter ahead of time. Zero subtlety. It irks me with King, too, but this was above and beyond. I don’t need an author to be constantly winking at me, and at some point I’ll start asking if that wink is a spasm and maybe they should see a doctor.
The worst sin of all is that I’m already starting to forget this book. It was intended, and he really pounds this home, to be Hill’s The Stand. It’s not that good. It doesn’t even come close. I could rattle off the name of every character in The Stand and their backstory and what they contributed. Even tertiary characters. I struggle to remember Harper’s name sometimes, and she was the central figure in the story. This didn’t only fail to live up to those standards. It’s not even memorable on any level for me.
That truly sucks, because I love Joe Hill. I’ve loved every other book he’s written, and maybe that’s why I’m being so harsh, because he’s taught me to expect the best from him. So when so much less than that comes across, I’m stunned. I don’t know what happened here. Maybe he needed an editor who loves that red pen a little more. Maybe this needed another pass. I can only hope the next one is better.
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