Dread Nation: Not just another zombie story

Dread Nation by Justina Ireland science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsDread Nation by Justina Ireland science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsDread Nation by Justina Ireland

In Dread Nation (2018), the American civil war was interrupted when the fallen soldiers on both sides rose again to eat their friends and foes alike. In short: things were a bit of a mess. Our protagonist, Jane, was born two days after the first shambler (the term for zombies in this story) rose on the battlefields. Dread Nation is about her life in this new world.

When I picked up Dread Nation it did cross my mind that zombie stories were a bit of a trend a couple of years ago. I picked this one up because it is in the running for the Andre Norton Award for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy (awarded with the Nebula Awards) — so if any zombie story is going to be good, it ought to be this one. I was not disappointed.

With few reservations, I thoroughly enjoyed Dread Nation. I am consistently a sucker for rough-and-tumble-with-a-heart-of-gold characters, and Jane is just that. She faces everything that comes at her with quick wits and a certain disregard for rules. It’s a combination I find endearing, and in Dread Nation I found the stakes of potential mistakes kept me engaged with her risk-taking.

One of the most gratifying things for me in reading is being surprised. Dread Nation surprised me at multiple turns — those stakes I mentioned earlier? Climbed in a way I did not predict as the story progressed. The way Jane and the other main characters navigate new information and situations was as satisfying as those situations were surprising.

Justina Ireland

Justina Ireland

Justina Ireland centres the story on African American people in an America where slavery may have ended, but the sociopolitical landscape is still fraught. Jane’s identity is central to the story. Her experience as a black girl in a world where slavery is less than two decades back and there are zombies across the country are not unrelated things. Dread Nation leans on the historical side of its ‘historical fantasy’ billing by exploring Jane’s experience via the attitudes and assumptions of the people around her. In this, Dread Nation is not just another zombie story — to the strength of the narrative.

Dread Nation has a lot going for it — it moves at a good pace, the characters are interesting and likable, and the story goes places I didn’t expect. Aside from a couple small issues where some story beats fell flat for me, Dread Nation was a very worthwhile read. I am looking forward to the sequel, Deathless Divide, scheduled for publication in 2020.

Published in 2018. At once provocative, terrifying, and darkly subversive, Dread Nation is Justina Ireland’s stunning vision of an America both foreign and familiar—a country on the brink, at the explosive crossroads where race, humanity, and survival meet. 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.

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SKYE WALKER, who has been on FanLit’s staff since September 2014 (after a brief time on staff as a YA reviewer in 2007-2008), is from Canada. Their HBA in Anthropology and Communications allowed them to write an Honours paper on podcasting as the modern oral tradition of storytelling: something they will talk about at any and all opportunities. Skye is a communications professional in the non-profit sector. These days their favourite authors include Ursula K Le Guin, Bo Bolander, and Chris Wooding. They can be found on social media @cskyewalker.

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2 comments

  1. This sounds pretty interesting. I read one of her stories in A People’s Future of the United States. I wasn’t crazy about the plot but I liked her protagonist.

  2. This is an interesting enough premise to get me past my zombie ennui — thanks, Skye!

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