Thursday, April 26, 2018

Review: Dread Nation by Justina Ireland

Dread Nation by Justina Ireland

Series: Dread Nation #1
Pages: 464
Genre: Young Adult Alternate History
Publication Date: April 2018

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 to 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.

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.


  1. I didn't finish this one. Maybe because it was not a horror, like you said. I just got bored and I think maybe the premise was a bit "out there" for me -- although I do love zombie books. It just wasn't a good fit for me. Great review.

  2. I like the idea of alternate history stories, but I thought there would be a bit more zombie action!

  3. I think I need to thank you for the warning as I'm now reconsidering my plan to read this book. I wanted to read zombies in the Civil War with the slave army fighting them. It looks like I'm getting a western instead. Darn it.

  4. I so loved this book. I agree it wasn’t what I thought it was either the change in setting threw me a bit too but still loved it and can’t wait for the next one.

  5. This is not a book I plan to read and I've read A LOT of mixed reviews, so I'm really glad to see that you still enjoyed it! I would definitely expect a zombie book to be part horror, so I would have been thrown off also. Great review!

  6. I've been wanting to read this, in large part because following the author on Twitter has been a really thought provoking experience. I am not a horror fan, so your reservations might actually mean I like the book MORE than I'd anticipated. Just got it at the library, so I hope to find out soon. Of course, I also just took back ten books I'd never gotten around to before their Final Final due date came up, so who knows?

  7. I'm glad to see you enjoyed this one! I've seen so much about it lately, but I've been hesitant because I am very much not a zombie person. Your review sounds really promising though, so I think I might have to reconsider picking it up.

  8. I love Jane. Like I want to fangirl over her or something. I do agree that it wasn't really a horror book as such, but I was okay with that- probably a matter of preference. You are right about the villains though- I suppose I was just like "eh, post Civil War, just a bunch of assholes, it makes sense" haahh. Glad that you mostly enjoyed it though!

  9. My horror books keep turning into westerns this year. Thank you for the warning! I may still give it a read, but I will definitely adjust my expectations.

  10. She did a great job of making zombies, racism, and danger upbeat through Jane. Glad you enjoyed it as much as I did.

    Tori @ In Tori Lex

  11. Sounds promising. I'm glad a book is pretty much living up to its hype!

  12. I started this ok two days ago and enjoying it so far! Glad to hear it is good! Great review AJ

  13. What an interesting, insightful review, A.J.! I think you've pretty much nailed the book's tone and character development!

    As you know, I was reading this novel as a "buddy read", along with Barb @ Booker T's Farm. I first saw it featured in on of her "Can't Wait Wednesday" posts, and was immediately interested in it. I think my subconscious mind knew there wasn't that much horror in it! Lol. She then suggested we read it together, and it's been a lot of fun!

    The book obviously revolves around Jane. She's such an AWESOME character! I LOVE her snarky humor, the way she solves any problem or mystery that presents itself to her, the fact that is indeed a born leader, and the way she SO deeply cares about her friends and family. You certainly made all of these things very clear in your review!

    I have finished reading this book. Barb and I do have a couple more posts to discuss it in, though. And then we, too, will publish our own reviews.

    This book certainly lived up to its hype -- for the most part. I have one or two quibbles about it myself, but I mostly loved it.

    You say this is not a horror story. Well, maybe it could be called "urban fantasy". There was a city in it, after all -- Baltimore. And then there was that mysterious other town. I was SO HAPPY there were not that many frightening scenes, and not much GRAPHIC blood and gore, although the author does describe Jane cutting off zombie heads. But there wasn't that much detail in these scenes. I HATE the horror genre, so, again, I was HAPPY this wasn't really a horror novel!!!! YAAAAAAY!!!!

    Sorry for the late comment back..... And thanks for your wonderful insights!! <3 :)

  14. DARN! I almost picked this one up on sale the other day... I totally should have. Great review!