Dread Nation by Justina Ireland
Series: Dread Nation #1
Genre: Young Adult Alternate History
Publication Date: April 2018
Near the end of 2017, I heard that there was going to be a book about Civil War zombies released in 2018, and I freaked out a little. I LOVE historical fiction, and history can only get better with zombies. Is historical horror a genre? If not, it needs to be. If it is, I need book recommendations.
Anyway, that’s a long-winded way of saying that Dread Nation became my most-anticipated release of 2018. As soon as it arrived on my doorstep, I eagerly devoured it.
So, did it live up to the hype? Yes. Mostly.
In the alternate-history America of Dread Nation, the Civil War was cancelled after the dead rose and started eating everybody. To fight the undead plague, “Native and Negro” children are sent to combat schools where they learn to hunt zombies. The narrator, Jane McKeene, is one of the top students at her combat school. When her friends mysteriously start disappearing, she decides to investigate and gets caught up in a deadly conspiracy.
“And I suppose I might have grown up better, might have become a proper house girl or even taken Aunt Aggie's place as House Negro. I might have been a good girl if it had been in the cards. But all of that was dashed to hell two days after I was born, when the dead rose up and started to walk on a battlefield in a small town in Pennsylvania called Gettysburg.” – Dread Nation
First, I have to say that this story isn’t really what I expected. That’s not the book’s fault. I just expected something else. Even though there are zombies, this isn’t a horror story. It’s not scary or gory at all. You sometimes go a hundred pages without seeing a zombie. I’d call it a western or an alternate history novel. I just need to warn you that if you go in wanting horror, you’ll be disappointed.
The story mostly focuses on Jane’s experiences as a black woman in the 1800s. I’m not an expert on that topic, so I can’t comment on how realistic Jane’s life is, but the author definitely shows the frustration of being discriminated against. I feel bad for Jane. She’s forced to battle zombies and keep the town safe, but she’s treated like crap by the people she protects. This is the type of book that makes you want to reach through the pages and punch some people.
I think Jane McKeene is going to be a perfect narrator for this series. She’s complicated, and it’ll be fun to explore her past as the series goes on. Most of her friendships are messy. She adores her mother, but she has a difficult relationship with her family. We get glimpses of her past in this book, and it made me curious about who she was before she came to combat school. I hope we see more of her family in the next books.
I love Jane’s personality. She can be a cold-hearted zombie-killing witch, but she’s a natural leader who cares deeply about people. I found her relatable. Even when you feel like everything is falling apart, you have to fake toughness and keep fighting.
“The day I came squealing and squalling into the world was the first time someone tried to kill me. I guess it should have been obvious to everyone right then that I wasn't going to have a normal life.” – Dread Nation
I don’t have many complaints about this book. Overall, I enjoyed it. I like the first half more than the second half, though. I don’t want to give away spoilers, but there’s a huge change in setting about halfway through the book. I was just settling into the Baltimore setting when everything changed. Then I had to get used to a vastly different place. That pulled me out of the story a bit.
My only other complaint is about the bad guys. There are a lot of them. Most of them are underdeveloped. I know that this is a series, and we’ll probably learn more about their motives later, but I want them to be just as complicated as the good guys.
So, is Dread Nation a brilliant work of literature? No. Is it entertaining enough that I’ll read the sequel? Yes, definitely.
TL;DR: Despite a few issues with the setting and character development, the narrator’s lively personality makes this book worth reading. I’m looking forward to more.