I don’t think a book has taken me this long to finish in a while and it has nothing to do with the length of it either. I started this book on audio the week that I was sent to work from home due to the current pandemic. And this is a book that concerns a pandemic style event. Bad timing?
No one knows exactly when it began or where it originated. A terrifying new plague is spreading like wildfire across the country, striking cities one by one: Boston, Detroit, Seattle. The doctors call it Draco Incendia Trychophyton. To everyone else it’s Dragonscale, a highly contagious, deadly spore that marks its hosts with beautiful black and gold marks across their bodies—before causing them to burst into flames. Millions are infected; blazes erupt everywhere. There is no antidote. No one is safe.
Harper Grayson, a compassionate, dedicated nurse as pragmatic as Mary Poppins, treated hundreds of infected patients before her hospital burned to the ground. Now she’s discovered the telltale gold-flecked marks on her skin. When the outbreak first began, she and her husband, Jakob, had made a pact: they would take matters into their own hands if they became infected. To Jakob’s dismay, Harper wants to live—at least until the fetus she is carrying comes to term. At the hospital, she witnessed infected mothers give birth to healthy babies and believes hers will be fine too. . . if she can live long enough to deliver the child.
Convinced that his do-gooding wife has made him sick, Jakob becomes unhinged, and eventually abandons her as their placid New England community collapses in terror. The chaos gives rise to ruthless Cremation Squads—armed, self-appointed posses roaming the streets and woods to exterminate those who they believe carry the spore. But Harper isn’t as alone as she fears: a mysterious and compelling stranger she briefly met at the hospital, a man in a dirty yellow fire fighter’s jacket, carrying a hooked iron bar, straddles the abyss between insanity and death. Known as The Fireman, he strolls the ruins of New Hampshire, a madman afflicted with Dragonscale who has learned to control the fire within himself, using it as a shield to protect the hunted . . . and as a weapon to avenge the wronged.
In the desperate season to come, as the world burns out of control, Harper must learn the Fireman’s secrets before her life—and that of her unborn child—goes up in smoke.
So poor timing aside, this is definitely up there with Horns for me as one of Joe Hill’s best works (outside of his work in comics). I think he has a true gift with novels that he sometimes lacks with the shorter stories and here it really shines through.
Here we have a world ravaged by a spore that manifests on peoples skin and can cause them to abruptly burst into flames. There is a phenomenal amount of detail put into how the spore infects and progresses. Dragon Scale is a deadly and fascinating disease, with as much detail as Hill was liable to give. Within the world of this book there is many theories that seem plausible for how the Scale works but within a world that is also falling apart and turning into a full scale apocalypse there is very little science to distinctly ground them. I found it reminding me of watching ‘The Walking Dead’ that way (when it was good) and it worked super well for the world building since it somehow made everything that little bit more real.
There is no way that I was getting through this review without talking about Harper. The book is very cleverly structured and timed around Harper’s pregnancy and within the 9 months it is fair to say that she achieves a very emotional character arc. Joe Hill writes wonderful mother figures and Harper is no exception. She is cheerful even in the face of danger but she is far from stupid, with an inner strength that never wains no matter who she is facing down. Although this is a global event, this is very much her story more than the actual story of the total apocalypse and it is handled very well.
There are several other wonderful characters I grew deeply attached to such as the Fireman himself or Nick, a young deaf boy Harper meets at Camp Wyndham. Something I found endlessly interesting was some of the antagonists, like Jakob (Harpers husband) or Carol Storey, another character from Camp Wyndam. Without giving much away, both are very real. Too real, especially Carol.
Hill is truly a master storyteller, no surprise with his parentage but he stands on his own two feet here and not for the first time. I can’t give away any other details about the story without spoiling it but this story is captivating, tragic, optimistic while being realistic and bleak all in one. The book wraps up so well and I can’t praise it enough. I went between the audio and the physical book here again and you are in for a treat with Kate Mulgrew narrating.
This should be a five star book but I had to take off a star for how long this took me and my poor choice for reading it during a pandemic. I will probably come back and change it but don’t let it put you off reading this great story. Thanks for tuning in guys! Happy Reading!