Book Review: Dread Nation by Justina Ireland

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Dread Nation

Cover Description: “Jane McKeene was born two days before the dead began to walk the battlefields of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania—derailing the War Between the States and changing the nation forever.

In this new America, safety for all depends on the work of a few, and laws like the Native and Negro Education 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.

What is the book about?

Imagine a world where the only reason slavery stopped is because zombie hoards were too overwhelming to keep shooting at one another. The south gives up slavery to gain the North’s help, and when the zombie hoards recede, they realize that, oops, we still are bigots and your fancy freed slaves aren’t going to change that. Jane is a black girl stuck in the middle of that nonsense. As a child, she’s taken from her home and sent to a school that teaches her to kill the dead. She’s good, but uncouth, and when she runs her mouth a little too long, she finds herself caught up in a mystery. Other girls like her are disappearing, there are false claims that the zombies are gone and the mayor is up to some serious no good.

In a sense, Dread Nation takes all the terrible things about the 1860s and just adds zombies and a bit of mystery. Kids shipped off to schools and torn from their identities, racism justified by religion, and careless and unethical approaches to social construction and science. It blends adventure, mystery and the wild West with some more serious looks at social issues and, of course, zombies.

What Did I Like About the Book?

Characters whose moral dilemmas actually look at the intersections of power and oppression. Yes, it’s a civil war zombie story, but Ireland captures a really interesting point. Though the main character is black, her companion is a beautiful passing black girl. This gives Ireland a lot of time to look at the ways that Jane sees her friend as more privileged and how, even when Jane is right, passing is its own set of terrible dilemmas. I think this is a cultural situation that actually serves to highlight complexity in racial dynamics better than a lot of civil war stories. Ireland points out these distinctions admirably and with a lot of respect for both characters.

Characters whose diverse characteristics were a fact of life that was important, but not always defining. Race was a clear fact of life, but all of the characters had other dilemmas to deal with. Whether straining to grapple with asexuality or trying to find common ground with different identities, it didn’t matter that the characters were gay or sex workers in and of itself. Those features were part of them and informed their identity but wasn’t solely their defining feature. Not to go off on a mini-rant, but all too often when we address identity characteristics, we make characters who are one-toned and meant to represent some sort of monolithic group. Person A is “THE GAY FRIEND” or Person B is “THE WOMAN OF THE GROUP.” It’s not enough and Ireland adds that complexity well.

Who was my Favorite Character?

My favorite character was Jane’s friend, Kate. Kate is haughty seeming. Her manners are ridiculously refined and she seems vapid. But underneath, she’s got fire. She grows up under very difficult circumstances and has to deal with a desire for freedom and solitary living that she thinks will never be fulfilled.

In truth, though. Kate and Jane play well off one another. While Kate is my favorite, it’s really in the moments where the two characters are vulnerable either together or in the presence of one another that they shine. The contrast between Kate and Jane, who is much more rough and tumble, is what really develops them as characters of their world and not just tossed into one.

What Did I Not Like?

Zombies. Boys. The sometimes forced sense of mystery.

While I think Ireland does well with the medium, I find zombies almost endlessly boring. And the fact that they’re surrounded by mystery (Are they disappearing? Where have they gone? Are we causing ourselves to fall into a trap?) all feels a bit forced. Keep in mind, that’s a personal preference.

The boys in the story are there as seemingly potential romantic interests, but they aren’t really characters in a fully fleshed sense. The only good counter balance is that they barely exist in the story. But they’re all also jackasses and Jane likes them anyway because they’re smart. Not necessarily because they see her as a person or value her.

The Verdict!

3.5 cups out of 5. The story has some really well developed moments and characters, but the plot overall is relatively dull. I wasn’t terribly impressed with the story’s development and the characters seemed to occassionally stumble into the solutions to their problems in ways that weren’t always dramatically satisfying. On the bright side, I really liked a lot of the emotional complexity that did exist and the really well integrated approach to social criticism.

3.5 of 5
Final Verdict: 3.5 cups. Ireland gets major +1s for the well developed ladies and the complexity of the social dynamics with which they deal. I’d have loved to see a more interesting plot and something more creatively constructed than a typical zombies outside the city wall story.
Pros Cons
+ Great ladies with seriously good repore. – The boys were dull. So dull. And they serve almost no purpose than to occasionally stumble in to unlock chains or say something vaguely science-y.
+ Lots of complex looks at social dynamics. Racism isn’t just racism; it’s in degrees. Sexism is terrible, but each girl experiences it differently. The distinctions really shine. – Zombies. Ugh.
+ Social assholery doesn’t stop just because there’s a big bad. It’s not like the North and South team up and get a begrudging respect for one another or something equally trite. There are real differences in the way people see the world and it doesn’t stop just because zombies are a bigger problem. –The setting could be far more interesting. It’s a walled city of racists who use religion to justify their horrible treatment of others. While pertinent to today, it’s nothing I haven’t seen, and there was a lot that could have been explored with it but wasn’t.

 

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