As I said in my last book review, I love stories that take two ideas and mash them together and do it well. Thus, altered history is one of my favorite less popular genres. I like asking the “What if?” questions. What if the Axis Powers won World War II? What if knights rode dinosaurs into battle? What if the dead started to rise during the Civil War? That last question is answered in Justina Ireland’s latest YA novel, Dread Nation. And let me tell you, it’s awesome.
After the dead began to rise from the fields of Gettysburg, the War between the States ended to fight a bigger problem. The government issues the Native and Negro Reeducation Act to send certain children to combat school, giving the the opportunity to work as Attendants to the white and the wealthy. As one of these Negro students in Baltimore, Jane longs to return home. But when people begin to disappear, Jane finds herself in the middle of a conspiracy that makes the restless dead the least of her problems.
Dread Nation, in a lot of ways, reminded me of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Kick-butt ladies slaying zombies and proving that they can hold their own without the need or want of a man. Historical details that just fit right in with the zombie-infected world. And of course, something much bigger going amiss than the dead constantly rising up to take another bite.
Jane McKeene narrates the story, and she is a firecracker. I love her distinct voice and her ability to think quick on her feet. I think this book thrives off her narration, but the other characters—from Jane’s sorta friend Kate to the dashing and troublesome Jackson to even the more villainous characters—go beyond caricatures to make this altered America come to life.
And it does come to life. Originally, I thought this book took place during the Civil War, but I’m glad it takes place after and during the Reconstruction era. Justina Ireland takes historical details, such as the Native and Negro Reeducation Act, and fits into the scope of a zombie apocalypse. These aspects truly make this book memorable and important as it addresses racism and sexism alongside the best way to slay the undead. Her use of diverse representation never felt pushy or political, but it felt right, revealing some of the atrocities that did take place in America during this time frame.
As for the plot and the meshing of story lines, I think those were exciting. There’s a lot of action with gruesome battles and nighttime ventures. Even the description of the zombies felt fresh, reminding me more of the zombies in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies than The Walking Dead or World War Z. There was minimal romance as well. Hints here and there of a past relationship and possible feelings, but nothing blossomed into a distraction from the main plot. The story keeps its focus on the ladies saving the world. (Or what’s left of their world.)
Overall, Dread Nation has easily risen to the top books of 2018 for me. With fresh characters, an interesting take on particular time and history, and the inclusion of diverse representation, this book exceeded my expectations. I think the only difference between it and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, in my mind, is the lack of a fine looking Mr. Darcy in black leather. But when you’ve got kick-butt gals in fashionable clothes taking down hordes of the undead, who needs Mr. Darcy, right?