“See, the problem in this world ain’t sinners, or even the dead. It is men who will step on anyone who stands in the way of their pursuit of power.” – Dread Nation
While dystopian novel XX vs XY imagines a future divided by gender, Justina Ireland revisits the most divisive era in the history of the United States. Except in Dread Nation, the Civil War didn’t end in quite the same way. The Battle of Gettysburg is no longer a decisive victory for the Union, but rather the beginning of an undead infestation.
In this young adult novel, readers follow black teenager Jane McKeene, who is training to become an Attendant trained in combat to protect the well-to-do in Baltimore. Although she is the daughter of a wealthy white woman, Jane finds herself at Miss Preston’s combat school, as young black Americans are considered perfect for fighting the undead, or “shamblers”. Yet when families start to go missing, she finds herself at the precipice of a larger conspiracy.
This combination of history, science fiction, adventure, and mystery provides for a compelling plot. This same mix also makes world-building an intense task – one that Ireland pulls of well.
Through Jane’s eyes, the reader is completely transported into a new, but familiar, America – a country rife with economic and racial tension, and quickly approaching a point of no return. Our protagonist’s voice exudes confidence, and that in turn affects how quickly one can relate to the new world. If Jane says it is so, it certainly feels that way, and Ireland’s use of details keeps the reader immersed.
Part of her success is that each major character is presented in a well-rounded light. Jane’s original rival, Kate, her old beau Jackson, and her mother, are slowly given backstories throughout the novel. We are never given a full character biography, but rather natural hints and clues through conversations and memories. These character developments provide a welcome change of pace from the action-packed shambler battles.
Yet its fluid readability and Ireland’s mastery of the craft is less poignant than the significant questions this book offers.
Dread Nation occurs post-slavery, yet racial injustice remains. One can’t help but notice the chameleon nature of slavery, as the institution continues to exist in the shadows. The mention of random arrests and drafting hark back to the Jim Crow era. Despite the oppressive and terrifyingly real forces, the reader is able to better reflect on and enjoy Jane’s resilience and agency.
As an #OwnVoices work, Ireland is able to shed light on the multifaceted stories of black Americans – a perspective that we so often lack.
Dread Nation is the historical zombie novel you didn’t know you needed. Not only will you not be able to put it down – I read it in one sitting – but you’ll also find it to be an indispensable and concise assessment of the history of race relations in America.
Published by Harper Collins, you can read Dread Nation in print, or wherever books are sold.
And if you’ve already read this stunning masterpiece? We’ve got a list of 8 unputdownable books that may strike your fancy.