A plague is spreading as this compelling book opens.
Spores of an exotic fungus infect people with what the media dubs ‘Dragonscale’ for the black and gold splotches that appear in strangely beautiful patterns on the skin. Victims begin spontaneously combusting, burning to death from the inside out, leaving behind nothing but piles of spore-infused ash. In the process, they set everything around them ablaze. Entire cities, towns, and forests go up in flames. No cure or treatment is known, and the disease seems wildly contagious.
In a sharp Preface, schools in major cities like Boston are already closed to slow Dragonscale’s spread. But the New Hampshire elementary where Harper Grayson is the school nurse still operates. Dedicated to serving others, Harper is both pragmatic and upbeat, earning comparisons to her favorite fictional character—Mary Poppins. But no ‘spoonful of sugar’ saves the infected man who stumbles onto the school’s playground. He bursts into flames as she watches from her office window. Quick as that, school’s out—permanently.
We fast-forward several months for the first chapter of the nine novella-length books comprising this epic novel.
Harper is a nurse at the local hospital. Civil authority is collapsing; terrified people are embracing dictatorial governments, religious fanatics and brutal vigilante tactics. But none of it arrests the burgeoning disaster. Harper briefly encounters the book’s title character—a mysterious, combatively determined figure in a fireman’s turnout gear. He’s infected, yet oddly unconcerned about his fate. Why?
It seems only an isolated incident—one of many she deals with as the catastrophe grows and her marriage to controlling, bitter Jakob decays. When a chain reaction of patients erupts to destroy the hospital, there is rogue Fireman John assisting her escape.
Back home, Harper soon finds herself pregnant—and infected.
Unstable Jakob thinks she must’ve infected him as well and demanded a suicide pact. But she wants to live—for the baby’s sake, if for nothing else. She fights, and Fireman John arrives to assist her again. He brings her to a hidden community of people who have made a strange spiritual peace with the spores.
In a less ambitious author’s hands, this might almost be the end: Peaceful people with new symbiotic relationship to the spores stay hidden and rebuild Earth after the fear-crazed ‘normal’ civilization self-destructs. Or on a grimmer/more cynical note: When ‘normals’ discover the place, they attack and destroy humanity’s last chance of survival.
Either way: The End.
Yes, I could see a serviceable, if shortsighted doomsday adventure built around either scenario.
But all the above is merely the beginning of a sprawling narrative journey—one full of twists and turns, pain and suffering, love and compassion, understanding and misunderstanding, small kindnesses and mass viciousness and, despite everything else, hard-won hope.
Oh, sure, the fatally flawed utopia of Hill’s Camp Wyndham is inevitably betrayed and destroyed, setting the few survivors off on a long and dangerous road trip. But he refuses to take the easy way out, and the result is a work that not only resembles some of his famous father’s best in sheer length and style but also in quality and thoughtfulness.
And if by chance a reader isn’t yet aware of Joe’s parental origins, I’ll simply invite him or her to take a look at the author photo on the inside back cover. You tell me, folks—whose kid is THAT? Yeah, right.
This book is certainly about people repeatedly thrust into painful and desperate circumstances.
But more than mere physical survival is at stake. It’s also about the enduring strength of human decency, love and family/community and beauty. And yes, above all else hope—not merely blind, unreasoning hope either. Hill’s characters are mostly fully rounded—with both strengths and flaws one can believe in.
That includes both the central characters and the most important supporting ones.
Crazed Jakob and especially the talk radio scum-bag who adopts him as a sort of sidekick, are more than a bit hard to take. But overall, one can see, if not excuse, what drives pretty much everyone else.
Likewise, the infected aren’t all heroes or saintly victims, either. They’re people with drives, desires, obsessions—all the conflicted and conflicting impulses of real people. Some are real jerks. And as a whole, they prove as susceptible as the uninfected to the blind, unreasoning fear of the different, the outsider, the ‘other.’
Most of both groups, sick or otherwise, are just people doing the best they can.
And what this book is mostly about (beyond the literal plot) is the need to respect and hang onto individuality within any group. Note: the very thing that allows the infected to survive the spores can also generate a kind of savage group-think that proves as irrationally intolerant as any that the ‘normals’ manifest.
The survival of the body proves meaningless unless you also learn to safeguard the soul.