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.
I mean, if watching or reading about hordes of the undead feasting on human flesh ever gets old to me, call the authorities, I’ve been captured AND I AM NOT OK.
But then the question becomes, what makes for a good zombie story? Does it need “a hook,” or will good writing & great characters win the day? Like, I’d argue that the concept of WILDLY ORIGINAL is increasingly rare, while at the same time, it seems like The Walking Dead has maybe squeezed the life out of the more “traditional” approach to zombies? I mean, you look at something like Train to Busan, and it’s definitely got that hook, and something that sets it apart from anything else in the genre. And it’s also so well written & acted. Same goes for the show Kingdom, which righteously blends zombie lore with a period piece.
Which is also what Justina Ireland cleverly does with Dread Nation, creating a sort’ve alt-history America in which to spin her zombie tale. The Civil War gets back-burnered in this story, because HEY, LOOK, THE DEAD HAVE BEGUN TO RISE.
So, the post-war tensions are high, but the shamblers (as they’re known in this world) have taken precedence. Black people and Native Americans are put into combat training schools, and effectively become conscripted soldiers in a war against the undead. Our main character, Jane McKeene, is a student at Miss Preston’s School of Combat in Baltimore. There she trains to become an Attendant, a sort of personal bodyguard for the white & wealthy. The combat side of training is where Jane is most comfortable. The etiquette side? Not so much. That’s where her frenemy Katherine comes in.
The relationship between Jane and Katherine was, to me, the beating (undead) heart of Dread Nation. They have this sort’ve bickering back & forth vibe, to the point where you’re not really sure if they’ll even wind up as friends. But just two really thoughtfully written characters, bringing their own experiences to this story.
Dread Nation tackles some really big & heavy themes, namely racism. And the book takes a really hard look at racism, on multiple levels. From the most overt, violent forms of racism, to the more subtle, subversive forms. The concept of “passing” is prominently featured in the book, as Katherine, though Black, has extremely light skin and can pass as white.
This book is also completely badass & a lot of fun…the action/zombie sequences are plenty gnarly, and Jane is a supremely talented slayer of the undead. The book also casually takes on a slight western vibe in some places, which I loved!
Justina Ireland is an author I’ve really been curious about, especially because she’s got some books in the Star Wars world out! Dread Nation was a great introduction to her writing, and I dug the hell out of this. She writes fantastic dialogue, killer action scenes, and this book also feels incredibly personal.
The thought that would not leave me as I read Dread Nation was WHY IS THIS NOT A NETFLIX SHOW, so here’s hoping. This would translate incredibly well to the screen, and Jane McKeene is the hero we need right now!