Book Review: Dread Nation by Justina Ireland

First line: The day I came squealing and squalling into the world was the first time someone tried to kill me.

First, this cover. LOVE IT.

Second, this premise. LOVE IT.

In brief: the dead rose after the battle of Gettysburg, and the formerly enslaved are freed -- but only to kill the undead.

Our heroine, Jane McKeen, is rich, complicated character. Born on a failing plantation to a white mother, she ends up in Philadelphia at Miss Preston's School of Combat for Negro Girls, training to be a white woman's bodyguard. But she chafes at the rules, frustrated she can clear out cities she'll never truly be welcome in, and she struggles to balance work with the passions of personal life.

From the start, Ireland's novel makes the point that whatever the era, were there a zombie outbreak, white supremacy culture would have demanded that people of color be the ones combating it. I love speculative fiction for imagining what could be, and that's what is so chilling about Dread Nation: Ireland's imagining is so familiar. Jim Crow and white supremacy still rear their heads after the Civil War, and even though the country is united in fighting the undead, few are willing to release the belief that people of color are less than. The Nice White Ladies are the most villainous (and following a summer with BBQ Becky, Permit Patty, and Sidewalk Susie, it's obvious Ireland's characterizations highlight the experiences familiar to people of color, however discomforting to whites.).

I am surprised at the strongly divided reviews I've seen on GoodReads, because this book stands out to me as a strong representation of a variety of genres. It's a historical horror heavier on character than plot; our heroine has to use her wits and relationships to overcome obstacles, many of which are subtle, secret, and layered with subterfuge. It's low on gore but rich with atmosphere. Ireland skillfully establishes this world without drowning the reader in backstory or being too stingy with details.

It's obvious this is the first in a series (trilogy, I'm guessing) although the main plot line is resolved enough to enjoy this one as a standalone. But I'm impatiently awaiting the next read - I can't wait to see what Jane does next.
It’s a cruel, cruel world. And the people are the worst part.
Title: Dread Nation
Author: Justina Ireland
Genre: Fiction (Historical / 1860s / Dystopia / Zombies)
Publisher/Publication Date: Balzer + Bray (4/3/2018)
Source: My public library
Reading Challenges: Historical Fiction

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