I need to preface this by saying outright: I wasn’t disappointed by this book. But damn, if you’re looking for escapism from the current political climate (which I kind of was) this is not the story to read right now.
Our hero Harper is our guide through the dawn of the probable extinction of man. A virus called dragonscale is causing people to spontaneously combust. A former school nurse volunteering at a hospital when skilled professionals become scarce, she makes an ally of the titular fireman when she correctly realizes he has brought a true emergency into her clinic – a little boy with appendicitis – when the rest of the staff mistakes him for another panicked civilian. When she herself becomes infected with dragonscale and her husband becomes crazed and violent with panic, the fireman returns the favor and rescues her, taking her to a camp populated by a group of the afflicted who’ve learned to control the flames.
We aren’t even two hundred pages into a 750 page book at this point.
Despite its length, the book’s biggest flaw is that it’s so full of ideas that it may not be long enough. There’s multiple allusions to post-apocalyptic stories throughout the text, from Lord of the Flies to The Road, which serve to mitigate some of my concerns of a predictable narrative – does anyone really think that things will stay harmonious at the utopian camp? – by reminding the reader that all this has been done before and the exact plot beats aren’t the point.
When society is undone, it isn’t by the dragonscale, it’s by those who think they know what’s best for everyone, from the Nurse Ratched-like Carol (who seems to have been written in preparation for the Clinton presidency we were all expecting) to the hateful followers of the “Marlboro Man,” a crass shock-jock turned leader hell-bent on killing anyone with who represents a potential threat, real or imagined. *ahem*
It’s a testament to Hill’s skill how briskly the 750 pages go by, despite some of the missed notes and predictable story beats. Harper’s fixation on children’s movies and literature reads slightly off; it’s not unreasonable that a woman her age would have her interest in the books and movies she does, but no one is naive enough to model themselves openly on Mary Poppins and expect to be taken seriously after saying “spit-spot” as a curse word. It reads false, which is incongruous with an otherwise well-defined character. The husband goes from dreamboat to comically evil fairly quickly, and from the moment we are introduced to the dragonscale utopia I began the countdown to its dissolution.
That said, I’m nitpicking an otherwise fantastic book. Even if it wasn’t the escape I was looking for, the human connections and basic decency of most people amidst the extremists may have been even better than escapism. I needed the reminder.