Review by E. Kirshe
Dread Nation by Justina Ireland is already on a bunch of lists of books to watch out for and there’s a good reason for that.
Set in Reconstruction-era America, history has taken a turn thanks to the undead plague that arises during the Civil War. The North and South agree to stop fighting each other in order to put down zombies (called shamblers here). The story is told through the first-person narration of Jane Mckeene. Jane is finishing her training to become an Attendant, a person trained in both weaponry and etiquette in order to protect wealthy white women. Thanks to the Negro and Native Reeducation Act this career path is not a choice. Even being the daughter of a very wealthy white woman does not prevent Jane from being required to train at Miss Preston’s school of combat in Baltimore.
Ireland creates a richly drawn brave new America- the worldbuilding in this book is extensive and expertly sprinkled across the pages. Even with the first person narration it never feels like an info-dump. Lots of true history is blended into Ireland’s version- history buffs will recognize some key phrases and inspiration.
Most of the horrors in Ireland’s alternate history America have little to do with zombies. Jane knows how to talk herself into trouble but that, as she puts it, has “a lot less to do with what I say than who I am”. No part of America is truly safe for Jane shamblers or no. Recognizable and racist politics under the guise of survival and restoring the country to pre-shambler greatness permeate the book and keep it tense. There’s surviving the undead and surviving a world that will use you but doesn’t want you. By the time Ireland drops Jane into the physical manifestation of what a great America means in the “Old West” town of Summerland the stakes are high.
Jane is a fantastic character. She is shrewd, funny, talented, ruthless, not heartless. She is full of righteous anger and it is completely refreshing. Jane is anchored by the people she loves which brings me to the next great thing about this book- the central and deepest relationships in this book are friendship and familial. The connection between Jane and her mother are literally at the forefront of each chapter. One of Jane’s main motivations as the book goes on his her desire to do right by her friend Katherine (who, like all of the supporting cast, is just as fully realized as our narrator). Jane is even drawn into the central plot of the book by another character’s concern for his sister. Romantic love is very much a side piece. To top it off everyone is basically a shambler killing badass. Women beating the crap out of men or monsters will never get old.
Dread Nation is intense, suspenseful, thoughtful, and so very well written. At 450 pages the book pushes forward quickly while maintaining suspense and offering surprises. Ireland explores topics of privilege, oppression, racism, and slavery in a grimly subversive way. As the increasing perils both political and undead come to a head the reader is given a thrilling conclusion.
Release date: Apr 03, 2018
The Furious Gazelle received a copy of Dread Nation in exchange for a review.