Review: Dread Nation

Book Cover
title: Dread Nation
author: Justina Ireland
pages: 455
format: Hardcover
buy it: Amazon | B&N | Goodreads
rating: 3/5

Jane McKeene was born two days before the dead began to walk the battlefields of Gettysburg and Chancellorsville—derailing the War Between the States and changing America forever. In this new nation, safety for all depends on the work of a few, and laws like the Native and Negro Reeducation 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.

This was an interesting book, and I wanted to like it a lot more than I did, but there were several things that stood in the way of my wholehearted enjoyment. In fact, by the time I got to the end, there were a few things that retroactively made me side-eye the parts I liked at the beginning.

Namely, the school set up. At first I thought it was a clever idea, and I liked it. But 1) we didn’t stay in the school, so we really didn’t get to explore its context or implications and 2) the author’s note was basically “I found out about Native boarding schools and thought, wow, what if that happened to my people.” Which is, uh, never a good look on anyone.

Once the main characters left the school at one-third of the way in, we also leave everything promised in the jacket-cover summary and enter a zombie western. Which…isn’t really a new concept. Frankly I was disappointed to be leaving the Baltimore setting, which I thought was much more fraught and creative. The Kansas setting, on the other hand, was everything dialed up to 11. I'm not trying to say that's a terrible decision to make, and it was written well. But compared to the Baltimore beginning, it just seemed like a step down on the creative/new scale. I would have really loved to see the book carry on as it started and explore that set up.

But I can hardly ding the book for daring to not follow what I wanted it to do. I can ding it for being an utter snoozefest as a western and as a zombie story. It really took no creative risks with either of those genres. The zombies in particular annoyed me, although in the same way that most zombie stories annoy me. I just…can’t be scared of something when the MC can slaughter 20 of them at a time and then outrun them in a horse-drawn wagon. These zombies are slow and stupid and there were so many logistical plotholes in their history and application that it actively distracted me from feeling any amount of tension in the action scenes. Now, as I said, same problem I have with most zombies, but…there’s been decades of nerds writing entire think-pieces about how zombies make no sense and how to fix the plot holes. The info is out there for people who want to write zombie stories, no effort needed, just take the advice being actively shouted into the void. But nope.

It also follows the ‘empty west’ fallacy of assuming/talking like all of Kansas was just a total blank slate. There’s multiple lines even about how people were moving west because there’s fewer people around to get all zombified and be a threat. Which is egregious enough in a regular western, but really bad in a story where the dead come back to eat people. You know, what with all the genocide that was going on at the time. We saw exactly one live Native and one Native zombie in the entire book. (There were other issues, especially with the in-story discussion of the schools, Debbie Reese covers it here.)

I did really like the characters, their various attitudes and trials and the interactions they had with each other. Jane’s anger mixed with humor was glorious, and Katherine’s…whole….everything, I loved Katherine. They way Jane and Katherine interacted, the side characters and their complicated relations to each other, all of that was excellent. I adored every one of the characters in this book. I just wish they had…more to do, basically.

Note: Jane is bi and Katherine is ace and/or aro, and while that was nice to see, both aspects basically begin and end within the same two-page conversation, so as ‘rep’ I don’t know that I’d go wild over it? Katherine’s aro/ace-ness does lend another level to her storyline, but as her story happens mostly off-page, it feels more like another missed opportunity.

1 comment:

  1. You know what a really good take on this kind of 'old-timey' horror was? Bloodborne, the PS4 game. Which managed to make zombies, vampires, and werewolves all very frightening, despite being the most cliched of monsters.