Book Review: The Fireman, by Joe Hill

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_firemanThe world is in the grip of a deadly pandemic. A highly contagious bacteria is spreading across the planet, infecting millions of people in its wake. Draco Incendia Trychophyton, or “Dragonscale” as people have taken to calling it, marks out its victims with beautiful decorative black and gold markings across their skin – and a propensity to burst into flame. And America is burning. Cities have been destroyed, millions have died. The sick are being hunted and executed by the healthy, led by The Marlboro Man and his Cremation Crew.

Harper is a nurse. Or at least, she was a nurse until her hospital burned down, killing hundreds of infected patients. Now she is herself infected with the disease – and pregnant. On the run for her life, and that of her unborn baby, Harper seeks refuge at a secret commune with fellow Dragonscale sufferers. They think they have found a way to live in harmony with their deadly disease – provided they are able to remain hidden from the quarantine squads. Among the group is the Fireman, an enigmatic madman who has taught himself how to wield his internal fire as a weapon.

I confess I am not a fan of horror or science fiction. This book was well out of my usual comfort zone. However, I was intrigued by the premise – and made all the more curious when I discovered that the author Joe Hill is actually Joe Hillstrom King, son of the legendary Stephen King. I suspected, rightly, that I was in for a good read. Joe has inherited his father’s gift for storytelling.

This is a tense and action-packed book. “How are we supposed to live our lives when every day is September eleventh?” Even when I wasn’t reading it, I felt an ominous sense of dread and anxiety. This is a book that follows you. Even in its bleak moments though, there is levity. I really enjoyed the many pop culture references and subtle jokes: the mentions of voting for Donald Trump, the frequent references to Mary Poppins and Harry Potter, the mentions in passing about the fate of various celebrities infected with Dragonscale (RIP George Clooney). This is a book that spans many genres without fitting neatly into any. It is part science fiction, part horror, part dystopian drama, part romance. In short, something for everyone.

It was no surprise to read in the author’s acknowledgements at the conclusion of the book that he has sold the film rights to the book. This is a story crying out to be on the big screen. The beautiful horror of the Dragonscale etching its victims in a pulsing gold pattern of swirls and curls will be incredible on a movie screen. Read the book before you see the movie.

Reviewed by Tiffany Matsis

The Fireman
by Joe Hill
Published by Gollancz
ISBN 9780575130722

Book Review: Wake, by Elizabeth Knox

Wake is available from Friday 1 November.

As I am still in the first few months of my job, I feel very cv_wakespecial whenever a publisher sends in something completely different to review. I saw Wake, by Elizabeth Knox, with the fantastic cover by Dylan Horrocks, and I immediately claimed it as my own. Knox has long been one of my favourite authors, and no matter the genre, her imagination and story-telling flair make her books truly special.

Wake was no exception. While I prefer my post-apocalyptic fiction to open after the gory stuff, once I had opened and closed it a few times, my brain reeling from the grim scenes of a pseudo-apocalypse, this book had me captivated. The story opens as a horrific event unfolds in the fictional Marlborough town of Kahukura, where all the residents suddenly go mad. Mad in a murderous, definite way.

I was intrigued by the nature of the monster – perverting not the private, but the public selves of the dead, taking them to the extreme as they seek conduits for their insanity. One of our survivors, a film-maker, loses his wife in the initial madness to a mad shopkeeper, who shoves money into her mouth until she chokes. There is also a memorable scene of a postie posting himself through a letterbox, among other gruesome occurrences.

Through the madness, we are introduced to several of the survivors, all bar one of whom survived by being outside the zone of madness at the time it began. The survivors include a cop, a truckie, a nurse, a caregiver from a rest home, a teenager, a lawyer, a conservation worker, an OAP, and a fisherman. Caregiver at the old people’s home, Sam was the sole survivor of the initial madness, and as we read on we start to understand what is different about her, and what part she may have to play in releasing the survivors from their unenviable situation.

The world Knox constructs is hyper-real, dealing with the day to day life of what being a survivor of an event such as this means. The survivors quickly realise that not only are they the only ones alive, they are unable to leave the town. Not only this, but the police officer entreats them to act as their best selves, to ensure no blame is attributed to them as they clean up the mess the madness has left behind. The cracks soon start to show, as an invisible monster seeks chinks in their psychological armour.

The shifting perspectives and insights into the main cast of characters’ minds are fascinating. Their differing responses to the atrocities are something that the reader can identify themselves with, and makes for an interesting philosophical query – how would you behave in these circumstances? How long would it take you to crack, invisible monster or no?

Many novels in this genre focus on the loss of things – Knox puts this aside and focuses on the loss of certainty, while the survivors deal compassionately with the dead. There is very little concern with food for themselves – they quickly establish a garden – though protecting the kakapo on the hill becomes challenging.

I encourage fans of Knox, and of psychological horror fiction generally, to pick Wake up. While not by any means an easy book to read at times, it will hook you and keep you until the very end. Brilliant.

Reviewed by Sarah Forster, Web Editor, Booksellers NZ

by Elizabeth Knox
Published by Victoria University Press
ISBN 9780864737700

Book Review: Blue, by Brandy Wehinger

Zombie romance, y’all: it’s totally a thing. I know,cv_blue this latest paranormal sub-genre trend can be hard to stomach. At least vampires have that pale, aloof sexiness, and werewolves have the whole alpha-male appeal. But zombies? Casting rotting corpses as romantic leads starts to get uncomfortably close to necrophilia.

The latest attempt to rehabilitate zombies comes from Auckland-based first-time novelist Brandy Wehinger: Blue, a rather sweet and gentle story for tween-age zombie beginners. The cover is absolutely cracking and very pick-up-able, featuring an eye-catching image from artist Misery that sets the horror-lite tone perfectly.

Wehinger aims to side-step the necro-horror and keep her book kiddie-friendly by creating an intermediate species between humans and zombies: blues. Sort of undead but sort of still human, blues retain the consciousness and self-control of humans, while also acquiring the stamina and unstoppableness of zombies. Wehinger encourages us to think closely about how this might work by devoting several chapters to a medical analysis of how the zombie condition is physiologically expressed.

zombie_teenIt’s an intriguing concept worth a closer look. If your body is transformed into something entirely other, yet you still retain the memories and thought patterns of your human self, are you still you? What is it that makes us human? Our physiology? The synapse configuration in our brains? Can we be physically something else but mentally still human? Are we our pulses or our memories?

Frustratingly, having posed these arresting questions, Wehinger comes nowhere close to answering them. Her novel, aimed at 10-14-year-olds, is ultimately in service of plot rather than ideas (a striking contrast to Carl Nixon’s The Virgin and the Whale, which I reviewed recently). There is a large cast of characters (alive, dead and in between) and the point of view skips between them, which has the potential to be interesting but ends up being disjunctive and making it hard to form an engaging emotional bond with the protagonists.

The central romance, between the zombie_girleponymous blue, Katie, and a human, Elliot, is superficial and, again, presents intriguing questions that are never answered: if Katie is sort of undead, are they still the same species? If not, how can they form a committed, loving relationship? Can they reproduce? Are their now-different physiologies sexually compatible? Perhaps if the bond between Katie and Elliot had been more passionate, if I had felt that their love transcended all boundaries, I wouldn’t have minded the author sweeping these thorny questions under the carpet; but, as it was, the romance was so hastily sketched that all I could see were the difficulties.

Wehinger’s prose, as one would expect for a genre novel aimed at the pre-YA market, is simple and easy to digest. The plot ticks along gently and only really gets going in the last few chapters, with an ending that is – inevitably – wide open for a sequel. The world-building is well done, with post-apocalyptic human society fragmented into agrarian tree-dwellers, gunslinging frontiersmen and Salem-esque, morally hysterical villages. Where I thought her writing fell down was in her characterisation, which is too heavy on the telling and too light on the showing.

Overall, although this is a reasonably entertaining (if ultimately unsatisfying) read, New Zealand can produce much better speculative fiction (i.e. fantasy, sci-fi and horror) – there’s some great stuff coming out of Steam Press – and much better children’s fiction (thank you, Gecko Press). So the challenge to Kiwi authors is still out there: make living corpses sexy. Any takers?

Review by Elizabeth Heritage
Elizabeth on Facebook

by Brandy Wehinger
Published by Random House NZ
ISBN 9781775534921