Book Review

Dread Nation

Dread Nation

Author: Justina Ireland

Genre: YA, Horror, Historical Fiction

Publication Date: April 3, 2018

Publisher: Balzer + Bray

Series: Dread Nation #1

TRIGGER WARNING: discrimination against and use of derogatory terms for Black and Indigenous people, forced medical experimentation on Black people, physical abuse

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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 Negro and Native Reeducation Act require certain children attend combat school 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.

But that’s not a life she 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 desperate fight against some powerful enemies. And the restless dead, it would seem, are the least of her problems.

It’s clear right from the start that Jane’s a survivor, and the first line of the book grabbed me:

“The day I came squealing and squalling into the world was the first time someone tried to kill me. I guess it should have been obvious to everyone right then that I wasn’t going to have a normal life.”

Jane is a biracial girl born during the War between the States, or what we now call the American Civil War. It clearly wasn’t a good time to be born to a white mother. And the fact that she stated it was the FIRST TIME someone tried to kill her made me think it wasn’t the ONLY time. However, Jane isn’t exactly what you’d call a “good” girl. She’s everything that girls aren’t supposed to be in those days: she’s outspoken, sassy, a liar, a thief, a troublemaker, too smart for her own good, and has a bad attitude. Even with all that, I still like her. Besides, even her bad traits work for her, and the lessons she’s picked up from her mother come in handy:

“My momma always said the best way to get what you want from people is to give them what they think they want. They expected me to be stupid, so I used that to our advantage.”

I avoid horror like there’s no tomorrow. I honestly had no idea that this book was classified as horror, or I probably wouldn’t have picked it up. I’m glad I didn’t know, because I would have missed out. I don’t consider this to be horror as much as alternative/fantasy historical fiction. The inclusion of zombies wasn’t even the scary part of this book — for me, the scariest part of the story was the part that did adhere to history. The part where people of color where treated so horribly, and the way people worked so hard to keep things status quo. Even after slavery was eliminated, there were huge groups of society that wanted to reinstate slavery. To me, that was the part that felt like reading horror.

Justina Ireland did a great job of maintaining tension and incorporating plot twists that I never saw coming. As I read, there was always a feeling of being trapped, and things just getting worse and worse, with no way out. I loved the way the connection between Jane and Katherine developed throughout the story. 

There was plenty of Black and biracial representation in the story, as well as some Ace and Bisexual representation. There’s some Indigenous representation, and while I’m definitely no expert, it didn’t feel as though it was as well-done to me. While Black children were sent to combat schools, Indigenous children were sent to schools to be reeducated and have their cultural identities stripped from them. I was confused as to why one character was sent to a school and ended up renamed “Daniel Redfern,” instead of given a more generic, Caucasian-sounding name as I would have expected.

Overall, the story was interesting and held my attention. Even though it ended on somewhat of a cliffhanger, I’m curious enough to want to get my mitts on the next book and dive right into it. I’m hoping that it delves a little more into the sexuality of the characters, since it presented those late in this book and didn’t get into it too much. And I’m also hoping that it does a little more justice to the Indigenous characters.

People who have sat around with me while I’m reading, especially when there’s a surprising reveal, a shocking plot twist, or an unexpected event often look up in alarm when I gasp audibly. The gasp factor is directly related to the number of times I audibly gasp during a reading, and there isn’t an upper limit.

Gasp Factor: 8

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