Dread Nation by Justina Ireland
Series: Dread Nation
Genres: Young Adult, Fantasy
Maturity Level: 3
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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.
Dread Nation was okay. It was fun enough, but for a book billed as a zombie-slaying social commentary I wish there had been a little more action and a little more modern-relevant social commentary.
I was most excited about this book because I love alternate history. It’s one of my favorite fantasy sub-genres, but it’s hard to do well. Dread Nation was not the most successful alternate history. While I loved that Ireland mixed real events in, as if they would have still happened only zombie-fied, many of the details were inconsistent. Language, for example. She had great time-period language like “reckon” or “derring-do”, but too often modern phrases like “damn straight” found their way in. I loved the idea that the American Indian boarding schools from the late 1800s would have been expanded to black citizens to fight the zombies. However, I could not buy that the GIRLS would have been allowed to train and fight in such a way. Individually taught, maybe. Government run? Probably not. Finally, there were so many “passing light” characters. My impression is that this is a very uncommon phenomenon, yet there were no fewer than three in this story. While I adored seeing bi-racial characters (and I was so excited to see bi-racial couples), it seemed a little much for realism.
That being said, I can get past an unrealistic alternate history. My main requirement is for a book to be entertaining, and I’ve enjoyed plenty a book where I said “that would never happen!” Unfortunately, Dread Nation wasn’t particularly exciting.
It moved along at a reasonable clip, so I certainly wouldn’t call this book slow-paced, but nothing exciting ever seemed to happen. There were a handful of zombie battles (three, I think), and that’s it. The rest is the main characters talking, observing, or plotting. Just, nothing of interest. Even their plotting never seems to go anywhere. Jane, the main character, for example, threatens revenge on a good ten characters, but she never even attempts to follow through. Katherine, her friend, spends a great deal of time snooping into the mystery, but never discovers anything.
I did like Jane and Katherine a lot. Jane is feisty, passionate, and really seems to care about keeping people safe. She’s willing to put herself at risk to help a friend or comrade. Katherine is prim and proper. She also wants to protect people, but is willing to do so by taking her time and following the rules. They had an interesting friendship that was fun to watch grow. I wish the two of them had a little more character growth, though.
There was no romance in this book, yay!, which was cheapened by Jane being attracted to just about every guy she met. There was also some LGBT lip-service where in one conversation Jane admits to also having liked a girl, but it really felt pandering. For most of the book she says things like “I always like a man who…” or “I’m a sucker for men…” She never expresses attraction for a woman outside the one conversation. Katherine is a-sexual, and that is also questionable outside of the one conversation. I wish Ireland had been more consistent on this front.
Really, that’s the story of this whole book. I wish Ireland had just been more consistent.
Dread Nation had a LOT to say about social injustices in the past. I think it’s worth reading if you want to understand how and why white people of the south systematically oppressed colored people after the Civil War. That aspect of the book was very well researched and consistent with other great historical fiction I’ve read. But a lot of readers were going on and on about how it’s still relevant, and I didn’t see that. But y’all, every book about a black protagonist doesn’t have to be The Hate U Give. It’s okay to have a book with representation that is mostly for fun, not social change.
Overall this was a moderately fun book, but not as exciting as I would have liked. If you’re interested in an adventure book, this might be a good choice for you, but don’t expect a masterpiece. I enjoyed Dread Nation, but I will not be picking up the rest of the series.