Everything about this book is intriguing. First, I was introduced to it by the duo on one of my favorite podcasts, The Read. They did a live read ad for the book and made some mention of being familiar with the author, who is from Philly. The premise of the book sounded interesting, too – something about the Civil War ending because of zombies.
I am not a zombie fan although I do find them funny in the movies. You’d never catch me following them in a TV series. So, I wondered how I’d fare reading about them in a book. Fortunately, zombies weren’t a main character of the book. They were there but this isn’t a horror novel so all the blood, gore, and creepiness are spared.
What this book does have is one badass leading lady. For a while, I forgot the name of the book. I kept telling myself that I had to get back to Jane to see what she’s up to next. If I wasn’t checking in on Jane every couple days, I started getting a little itchy. Yesterday, I took a couple hours to finish the book because I got tired of getting the story in little chunks at a time.
I am not a book reviewer. I read reviews to help me understand the story better. I loved the book and hated when I had to put it down. There was never a dull moment. I was totally absorbed by Jane and her struggle to survive as a black young lady who literally took no shit off of nobody. That’s my review. As Rae Sremmund sings in ‘No Type’ – I Like What I Like.
I’ve copied a couple reviews below that sums up how I feel about Dread Nation. These two professional reviewers do a great job of covering the book the way I wish I could.
Both reviews from Goodreads.com
Dystopias are popular settings for YA (young adult) novels; while most imagine a future where a class of people is oppressed by a system of authoritarian social control, Justina Ireland’s canny new horror western Dread Nation locates its dystopic vision in America’s past. History diverges when the dead start returning en masse, hungry for human flesh, bringing an early end to the Civil War and the institution of slavery – but only in the barest sense. No longer forced to work on plantations, Black Americans are instead conscripted at a young age to train as soldiers to battle the “shamblers” (my new favorite euphemism for the walking dead) that are overrunning the country.
Jane McKeene is one such “attendant”-in-training, lucky enough to be receiving her education at the prestigious Miss Preston’s School for Combat in Baltimore in 1880. Her good fortune runs out when she and her class rival Katherine, along with runaway Red Jack, uncover an illegal scheme by the city’s mayor and are shipped off to Summerland – a frontier enclave in Kansas that promises to restore white Christian supremacy to America and treats its Black and Native American militia little better than chuck for the meat grinder.
Many of the story elements that make dystopian YA fiction popular are also staples of the western genre – love triangles between characters from different classes, lone heroes standing up to injustice, landscapes defined by violence and industrial transformation – so the familiar elements are a comfortable fit in Ireland’s reformulation. The classic western narrative, though, depicts the westward march as an act of heroic advancement, a taming of the “wild” frontier for the benefit of civilization. Dread Nation may offer an alternative history of the west, but its depiction of institutionalized racism and classism – where marginalized peoples are forced into a perpetual fight for survival amidst the stampede of “progress” – is little changed by the disruptive insertion of the shambler hordes.
Dread Nation’s genre-hybrid premise functions seamlessly on every level – as western, horror, YA, and alt-history (a toss-off General Custer joke is my favorite laugh-out-loud moment in the book). Jane is a fantastic protagonist, a trickster-like woman-at-arms who is loyal to her ideals and to the people she cares about above any nation or creed. Her budding friendship with Katherine (herself an excellent subversion of the “tragic mulatto” stereotype) is the most affecting relationship in the story. Of all the praiseworthy facets of Dread Nation, my favorite is how its episodic, cliffhanger structure – full of foot-dangling dangers and feats of boldness and bravado – parallels the classic (and historically, often woman-centered) newspaper serials Jane loves to read. Perhaps it will find a natural home as an adaptation for one of the online streaming services, whichever is gutsy enough to do it justice.
Honestly, black zombie hunters in the Reconstruction era is definitely the best historical fiction concept of all time. And the fact that this totally, completely lived up to my hopes? Even better.
I think this is a book action fans are going to enjoy. Dread Nation may be a full 450 pages, but I felt like this book never stopped moving. I even felt – and I never say this about 500 page books, because come on – that I could’ve broken a reading slump with this. I solidly enjoyed every moment I spent reading.
Beyond the nonstop action, I adored our two lead characters. Yes, I said two lead characters, but for once the other lead isn’t our badass girl lead’s love interest – she’s her girl best friend. THANK GOD.
➽ Jane, our lead, is a fantastic actress, fantastic liar, and even, at times, a slightly unreliable narrator. And she loves dragging people. And she is the bi icon we all need in our lives. While I somewhat wished she has a more solid character arc – you all know me and my character arcs – her character has such a strong voice that I ended up loving her anyway.
➽ Katherine, a character so developed I’d almost consider her a protagonist, is so good. She’s black, but light skinned enough to pass as white, something that leads to resentment from her fellow trainees. Also, she’s established quite clearly as ace-aro without the terminology being used, which: A+.
Besides the nonstop action and the character work, the best thing about this book is probably the theme work. Jane and Katherine’s friendships originates from a plotline involving slut-shaming, girl competition, and Jane’s own internalized dislike for lighter-skinned black people being majorly subverted. And given that there’s no romance, the friendship between Jane and Katherine serves as the centerpiece of the book. And the themes around racism are so well-done – this is an ownvoices book and it definitely shows.
Okay, and also, a rant: hooooooo boy, I am such a slut for history. This is un-boring historical fiction that still keeps all the nerdy references. The worldbuilding is full of nods to history. The use of terms like the Five Civilized Tribes, “War Between The States,” and “War Of Northern Aggression.” The entire thematic point of the combat schools for black and indigenous people. Deep South States are now called Lost States of the South due to lack of patrols and lack of winter during which dead lie down, the mention of germs as a controversial idea and idea of an original Gettysburg strain and a transferable Custer strain, the scientific racism developing around “coloreds,” the conflict of party-based Survivalists vs the Egalitarians, and the little details of the worldbuilding, like the fact that carriages are called ponies because all the horses have all been eaten – it’s all there and it’s all brilliant. YES, I AM A NERD. LEAVE ME ALONE.
While there’s a cast of intriguing side characters, something I really enjoyed here is that for the most part, the characters facing oppression are the focus. While characters like Professor Ghering and Miss Duncan are given dimension, the lens of the book falls mainly on characters like Red Jack, who are actually dealing with the problems caused by slavery. It’s both a realistic aspect, considering Jane narrates, and an aspect that I really appreciate and haven’t seen in enough books thus far.
Listen, diverse YA (young adult) historical fiction is really bringing back literature right now. It’s not a coincidence that all three of the BR Squad – Melanie, Destiny, and I – gave this a full five. Not only is this book relevant, especially now, it’s also just one of the most enjoyable books I’ve read recently. I can hardly wait for Dread Nation to release. I don’t even know how I’m going to wait for the sequel – reread, maybe? But either way, you are all going to love this.