Dread Nation: Review
Dread Nation by Justina Ireland was an incredibly hyped book for me, one reason being that the cover itself featured a woman of color. How! Badass! Is! That! There's been some controversy recently about the author and her comments about who she considers to actually be people of color... but I read this book and formulated my review before this all went down. And down, it went. It's pretty draining to even think about but rest assured, my review below is based entirely on what I read within these 455 pages and not what I read on Twitter.
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.
Ireland takes us on a dark, dark journey with this zombie-filled historical fiction novel that takes place in the Reconstruction era. It's a starkly divided America where the Confederate South is in full swing and young black women are trained to be the front line of defense against the zombies that plague the South. This is a crazy unique premise and I am here for it. Dread Nation explores heavy themes with a light, subtle touch- racism and "blackness", socioeconomic disparity, you name it. Some parts made me, as a non-black reader, feel uncomfortable. But that's good. That's what fiction should do- good fiction that puts you in the shoes of the narrator and immerses you into this new territory.
This book is great for fans of a variety of genres: action, horror, and western. I'm adverse to gory television shows and while there is a fair amount of explicitly gory description in the book, it's not overdone in a way that the book is riding on the zombies' coattails. That is a weird thing to picture, but there you have it. Jane's point of view as a narrator was refreshing and she tells her story in an authentic way without filters. By that, I meant that the writing reflects her background, with a Southern drawl and plenty of old Southern phrases, metaphors, and nicknames. It was so fun to read and a bit different from what I'm used to!
But why did Dread Nation fall short for me? Unfortunately, it's the plot. The progression was incredibly slow and at the same time predictable, so you can imagine how tempted I was to skim through a good chunk of it. Plot twists were not as surprising as Ireland might have intended. It's strange to say for a zombie-ridden book but I don't think the stakes were high enough, either. Jane is such a strong and fierce fighter- almost superheroine-like compared to those around her- that I wanted to see more vulnerability from her, more flaws. I could have also done without the romantic subplot as well. It added nothing to Dread Nation and seemed entirely unnecessary.
This was a difficult book for me to rate. I gave it points for its unique premise and gutsiness to go after a setting so controversial and uncomfortable, but I wish the plot and writing were just a bit stronger.