Jane McKeene was born two days before the dead began to walk the battlefields of Gettysburg, changing America forever. In this new nation, under the Native and Negro Reeducation Act, certain children attend combat skills where they learn to put down shamblers – the undead.
Jane will soon be graduating Miss Preston’s School of Combat in Baltimore, and is set to become an Attendant – female fighters who protect their rich white mistresses from those who would steal their virtue…or eat their brains. But when families around Baltimore County begin to go missing, she is caught in the middle of a conspiracy. And the restless dead are the least of her problems…
OH DAYUM. This book has it all. Fabulous characters, epic fight scenes, lush historic detail and a touch of the Heckin Scary. It’s like a black, feminist Abraham Lincoln Vampire Slayer… except actually good. I’m in love!
🐯 Ruh roh
Last week, I made a pact to read more books from POC authours in 2019.
Clearly I didn’t choose my first pick wisely, because I’ve now heard about lot of drama involving Justina Ireland. This relates to the unprogressive ways Native Americans are presented in this book, and her choice to make the three black main characters in a book about conquering racism all biracial. There were also some very insensitive tweets against the Asian community…bleh. Bleh.
These things have made a lot of book bloggers sad and mad. I don’t have anything to add that hasn’t already said by many bloggers from ethnic minority communities, but I want to offer my solidarity and hope that Justina Ireland listens to people who’ve spoken up and makes the sequels More Awesome.
Your faves are problematic strikes again!
🐯 Bad chicks do it well
The two leading ladies in this book are hella feminist. They feel fresh, three dimensional, and strong female friendships abound. Whooo!
Jane is everything I want from a female protagonist. She’s a fighter who uses two sickles to slit zombie throats, and she works and trains damn hard to earn those skills. Jane has a strong heart, but she’s not afraid to lie, cheat, or steal to get to where she needs to be. Throughout the book she has to make some horrible ethical decisions in the face of the undead, and face down the consequences of living with her choices. Yes! I FUCKING LOVE IT when female characters get to be morally ambiguous!
Katherine is Jane’s rival at Miss Preston’s, and she’s absolutely brilliant. Katherine is a white passing, popular girly girl…and a snitch. She’s everything Jane loathes and envies. But wait! Is Katherine actually a Mean Girl? Hell no. She’s smart, brave, and beneath her prickly exterior she’s incredibly kind. As Jane and Katherine realise they have been misjudging each other, Katherine develops into a heroine in her own right, and eventually becomes Jane’s best friend.
Can I get an amen in here???
🐯 Fuck racism, everyone
Dread Nation is a powerful commentary on structural racism against African Americans, and how deep that inequality has its claws sunk into the fabric of the USA. In this post apocalyptic world, slavery is outlawed and blacks and white nominally live in equality. And yet the old ways bubble of the surface of this brave new political system, with racialized socio-economic equality and the indentured servitude of the Reeducation Act reliving the same old oppression under another name. Hmm, post colonialism, anyone?
🐯 Frankly my dear, I don’t give a shambler
Dread Nation is set slap bang in 1870s USA, with all of the amazing fashion, slang, and culture that brings. But it’s alternate history too. The deep South has been lost to hordes of shamblers who are more active in hot weather. In the East, the right wing Survivalist party build walls around cities and preaches about god’s judgement. Out west, Native American tribes battle living colonisers alongside undead invaders. Horse drawn carriages have been replaced by steam powered cabs, and over in France Louis Pasteur races to discover a vaccine for the shambler virus. There’s a lot of world building here and it’s DELICIOUS.
I thought the plot was incredibly exciting. As Jane is caught up in the conspiracy, we zip from Baltimore high society to dystopian frontier town called Summerland, ran by a Survivalist Sherriff with an iron grip. From there, Jane, Jack and Katherine have to fight for their lives.
There’s no romance in this book, instead Jane is trying to renegotiate her relationship with Jack, who went from best friend to lover to crappy ex who broke her heart. This was a really refreshing twist!
Like many zombie novels, this book has death lurking at every turn. It’s complex, it’s nuanced, and there’s no clear line between good and evil – except when it comes to racist murderers, because come on. This book isn’t afraid to ask the deepest, most dreadful questions about how far we’re willing to go to survive, and serve up uncomfortable answers. Mwahahahaa!
🐯 Bring me that sweet, sweet sequel
Although there’s a big change in the story between Baltimore and Summerland, I felt that Jane’s drive to survive and find her mother formed a strong narrative direction which wedded the two halves together.Having said that, to all the people who thought this book had a scatty plot and no clear direction – I hear ya.
Loads of things don’t get tied up. Dread Nation is very obviously sequel building. Loads of interesting characters get set up really well only to VANISH AND NEVER APPEAR AGAIN. Most importantly, Miss Anderson the slimy racist school governess, and Daniel Redfern, the Native American gunman who might be a good guy…maybe? There’s also Gideon, a Harvard drop out whose rich dad shipped him out west. He’s interesting when he’s inventing SCHIENCE to keep Summerland afloat, and he’s boring when he’s having boring boring non existant sexual tension with Jane. Anyway, I want to find out where all these characters went!
The only characters in this book who I thought downright sucked were Sheriff Racist McEvilpants (who for some reason my brain hallucinated as a cross between Chris Pine and Clint Eastwood??) and his father, wizened old Pastor Evil McRacistpants. Whilst Chris swaggers about Summerland and enforcing violent law, Pastor Evil sits on the sidelines and pulls his strings like a particularly racist eye of Sauron.
Well, apparently. These two were supposed to have an iron grip on the town, but the threat of their menace never materialises. The shamblers are much better villains. Jane is constantly describing the Sheriff in terms of TERRIFYING!!! POWER!!! BULLY!!! SEXUAL AND RACIST VIOLENCE!! We only see Pastor Evil do one shitty sermon before Jane kills him. The Sherriff does a lot of riding in his hat and chewing tobacco, but the only acts of evil we see him commit get interrupted. Hell, at time some of his actions seem almost… reasonable. What’s that about?
But I guess we’ll never know, because then Jane blows his brains out too. Bye, bitch!
🐯 That Twist Though (aw yeah)
The only thing I didn’t like so much about this book’s structure are the snippets of letters between Jane and her mum at the beginning of every chapter. They don’t add anything except heavy handed irony. For example, comments like Dear Mother, I’m being very well behaved at Miss Preston’s when it’s painfully obvious that two seconds later Jane is going to break the school rules.
However, at the very end, there’s a plot twist about Jane and her mother that left me SHOOK. It made both of them more interesting as characters…and also made the book even more fucked up than it already is.
WHICH I LOVE!!!!
I’m so pleased I bought this, because I absolutely love it. It had everything I wanted from a gritty, fast paced and feminist YA novel…including less romance, more moral ambiguity, lots of women, and LOADS AND LOADS OF ZOMBIE SLAYING.
5 paper tigers!
Chat with me!
What did you think of all the butt kicking in this book? What’s your favourite alternate history dark fantasy novel? And what are the chances that maybe Katherine and Jane will end up together in the sequel? *prays to Neptune* Let me know in the comments!