Review: Dread Nation (Dread Nation, #1) by Justina Ireland

I’ve seen you skulking on the county roads in the dead of night, Miss McKeene. Do you know they call you the Angel of the Crossroads, the people you save?
Rating: ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ (4/5)

What’s This Book About?

Genre: YA Zombie thriller/alternative historical fiction

Synopsis: 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. Trained in both weaponry and etiquette at Miss Preston’s School of Combat for Negro Girls, Jane is poised for a successful career as an Attendant, protecting wealthy ladies from the encroaching plague of the walking dead.

Life as an Attendant offers the 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 when entire families start to go missing, Jane uncovers a conspiracy that pits her against some powerful enemies. Sent into into exile, she’ll need all the resourcefulness, wit and resilience she possesses – just to survive. And the restless dead, it seems, pose the least of her problems…

What I Thought:

This was the first alternative history novel I’ve ever read, as well as the first zombie thriller – it’s a great feeling when you discover a new genre/sub-genre that you enjoy! The multitude of routes that history could’ve taken is simultaneously fascinating and terrifying, and Ireland did a great job imagining how events would pan out and how a deeply unequal, deeply divided society might change (or not) to confront the new zombie threat.

Narrated by Jane, an Afro-American girl, Dread Nation takes a hard look at structural violence and institutionalised discrimination that, though occurring in the 1800s, isn’t actually too distant from our present. ( Alex Brown’s great review of this book talks more on how politically relevant Dread Nation‘s depiction of systemic racism is.) Jane experiences myriad incidents of racial and gender-based discrimination both implicit and explicit, and we also see the varying reactions people have towards their oppression ranging from Jane’s vehement rage to Cora’s acceptance bordering on support.

I’ve seen her kind. She’ll do everything the people in charge tell her to, even if that means she ends up broken and bloody. She’s one of those people that never learned to breathe, never understood the true meaning of freedom. She’s a dog, happy even with a cruel master.
I also liked that Ireland included representation of the Native American peoples who suffered under the dogma of white supremacy, such as through a Lenape character called Redfern who is far more than what initially meets the eye.
They took me from my family, cut my hair, beat me every time they felt like it, and sent me to work for the mayor when I was eighteen.
Another thing I enjoyed was that although many black and Native characters suffer, this isn’t a victim story – survival, resistance and hope run deep throughout the narrative. It’s so important to acknowledge and remember pain and retain faith that society and circumstance will evolve. And this social commentary is all wrapped up in a vividly written and engrossing zombie apocalypse survival story.

**SPOILER and TRIGGER WARNING for next paragraph!!**

That whipping scene was bloodcurdling to read. Perhaps it should’ve come with a trigger warning, but this goes to show that Dread Nation really does not shy away from showing how starkly horrible the situation was even in (supposedly) post-slavery times.

**SPOILER OVER**

Jane McKeene is an excellent protagonist with a voice fitting perfectly into that historical period. She’s a distinct and well-rounded character who conveys both harsh and soft aspects , and also has a wicked sense of humour that breathes life and personality into her narration! The other characters, especially Katherine, are also compelling – I really enjoyed the development of a strong and genuine girl-girl friendship between her and Jane. They grow from being spiteful and disparaging to mutually respectful and loyal. Love it!

Narrative exposition was handled skilfully through a combination of letter excerpts, flashbacks and unexpected revelations. I especially enjoyed the chapter titles (“Chapter X: In Which I…”) and the letters from Jane and her mother being split into Parts 1 and 2 respectively. The letters from Mrs McKeene worked particularly well to gradually crank up the suspense and increase the stakes.

That cliffhanger was intense, though the ending did seem a little…hurried. The opening chapters were, as expected, more detailed and prolonged in order to set up the context and characters, but near the end, I kept seeing how close I was to finishing and thinking, Surely not? The big showdown was over so fast! I also noticed a couple of what would be the equivalent of continuity errors in the book, in a scene that’s split between the end of one chapter and the start of the next, but these are small quibbles.

Regarding what I’ve heard about Ireland and comments she allegedly made about Asian people not being people of colour, I don’t really know what to think. I found out about this ‘drama’ quite late and all the tweets, replies and other contextualising information have been deleted, so I really can’t say for sure how I feel about Ireland herself – but this book was good, at least!

Thanks for reading! Do you have any zombie lit recommendations?

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