Dread Nation (Dread Nation #1)
By: Justina Ireland
Publisher: Balzer + Bray
Publication Date: April 3rd, 2018
Jane McKeene was born two days before the dead began to walk the battlefields of Gettysburg and Chancellorsville—derailing the War Between the States and changing America forever. In this new nation, safety for all depends on the work of a few, and laws like the Native and Negro Reeducation Act require certain children attend combat schools to learn to put down the dead. But there are also opportunities—and Jane is studying to become an Attendant, trained in both weaponry and etiquette to protect the well-to-do. It’s a chance for a better life for Negro girls like Jane. After all, not even being the daughter of a wealthy white Southern woman could save her from society’s expectations.
But that’s not a life Jane wants. Almost finished with her education at Miss Preston’s School of Combat in Baltimore, Jane is set on returning to her Kentucky home and doesn’t pay much mind to the politics of the eastern cities, with their talk of returning America to the glory of its days before the dead rose. But when families around Baltimore County begin to go missing, Jane is caught in the middle of a conspiracy, one that finds her in a desperate fight for her life against some powerful enemies. And the restless dead, it would seem, are the least of her problems.
I don’t remember exactly how I first learned about Dread Nation, but I do remember exactly why I decided to preorder it: because Justina Ireland and Dhonielle Clayton (author of the Belles) had gotten into a twitter fight against some racist trolls, and I decided that I wanted to support them any way I could. But, even without the twitter fight, I probably would still have jumped at the chance to read this book. I mean–badass girls killing Civil War zombies? My boyfriend was so excited at the plot that he asked me to read it next. So I obliged.
Overall, the phrase of ‘An America both foreign and familiar’ sums up Dread Nation extremely well. It’s a place where theoretically the North won the war and slaves were given freedom, but where in reality African Americans and Native Americans have been pressed into institutions where they are trained to be on the front lines of fighting the dead. Jane is one of these, at an institution outside of Baltimore where she is being trained to become an attendant–a personal bodyguard for a young society lady, meant to protect her reputation from zombies and suitors alike. But Jane has other plans–some of which involve slipping out at night to help innocent farmers deal with the zombie plague. But Jane and her kind-of friend Katherine both get involved with political dealings far over their heads, and get sent out of Baltimore to deal with a far harsher life on the prairie, in an utopic settlement that is not what it seems.
The first few chapters did drag–maybe I’m just getting jaded, but the boarding school plot line was not the most interesting. It was also a delicate balance between introducing the story and providing sufficient backstory, and that was just not done well enough to keep my attention. Fortunately, the pace picked up rapidly right around the time Jane and Katherine go investigating disappearances in town–and it only gets better from there. When they got to Summerland I was at the point where I was unable to put down the book. And when it ended, there were enough threads left hanging that I could have immediately grabbed the sequel and read it.
As the book goes on, it also gets deeper into racial dynamics–Jane and Katherine are both biracial, and Katherine is passing. There’s tension as both of them navigate their place in Summerland, and society as a whole (one thing that’s constantly brought up is surprise that Jane can read, and has read widely–as well as condemnation of it). But there are also more issues beyond Katherine and Jane’s personal navigation of their identities–for instance, how African Americans are treated as experiments/zombie fodder/underpaid labor. Even though slavery is illegal and all African Americans in Summerland are paid a wage, it’s extremely small and quickly eaten up by prices that are higher than those paid by whites. There are also two groups, Survivalists–who believe that a return to the ‘natural order’, aka slavery, is necessary for survival, and Egalitarians, who believe that society should continue on as well and equally as it can–feuding politically. There’s a lot to be gleaned from the society that Jane and Katherine navigate, and how they navigate it, in ways that also allow us to turn a mirror onto our own world. What this book did an excellent job of pointing out was that there are more ways than one to have an enslaved population, and that the way that society works can effectively institute slavery even without the actual enslavement. Another point was that, in the words of Olivia Pope, black women have to ‘work twice as hard to get half as far’–Jane is constantly being underestimated, looked down on or put in danger because she is a black woman. Although it was wonderful to see her rise above and show the world her true potential, it was also exhausting seeing her do this again and again. But don’t take my word for it–Alex Brown over at Tor has an even more in-depth examination of racial dynamics in Dread Nation, from a more important perspective. Check out her review!
But what I thought really made this good was not just this mirror world, but how Jane and Katherine navigate it–and their own relationship with each other. They both start on a somewhat stereotypical note: Jane the insolent troublemaker, Katherine the goody-goody-two-shoes who Jane says is (and acts like she is) too good for the school. But once they’re forced into a situation where they have to rely on each other, they quickly become friends and start to see the best, rather than the worst of each other. Jane is the sort of person who does her best to save the world, but she’s not naive about it. Instead, she uses her quick wits and calm head to try to always be several steps ahead. She’s realistic about the power structure in place that discounts her, but several times uses it to her advantage, playing dumb or catering to stereotypes to get what she wants.
Katherine, too, is someone who is full of surprises. I mean, being the top two students at a zombie-killing school isn’t nothing–but Katherine’s strength was very different from Jane’s, and it felt like she was just figuring out what she was good at, beyond school and fashion. I’m really excited to see how her character develops further in next books.
Also, beyond just racial dynamics, I squealed at the conversation where Jane and Katherine reveal that they are bisexual and asexual, respectively. And I love how that plays into their characters in meaningful ways–Katherine wants to be free of the constraints of society, including the one that dictate she marry, whereas Jane is egalitarian in more ways than one. I also loved how Jane was very no-nonsense about her sexuality–her ex Red Jack is a side character that she tolerates for a good chunk of the book, and I loved how Jane’s ability to love easily in no way hindered her from being a badass–she admitted to feeling heartbreak after Jack dumped her, but didn’t let that interfere with any kind of survival attempts.
Anyways, this was a read that was both full of adventure, zombies/blood/gore, badassery–but also deeply insightful about a culture that doesn’t look too far away from ours. I would wholeheartedly recommend it–and hey, if anyone has the sequel lying around, would they mind tossing it over here?
Disclaimer: The synopsis and cover picture were pulled from the book’s Goodreads page. Neither belong to us.