Dread Nation – Justina Ireland (ARC Review)

Spoiler-free review!

30223025 (1).jpgJane 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.

Synopsis courtesy of Goodreads!

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.

This has been on my “most anticipated 2018 releases” since the first time I saw its cover. A hist-fic/horror book about a young black woman killing zombies during the Civil War era? Gimme! Let me tell you the first thing I learned, though: this is not a book about zombies. This is a book including zombies, but first and foremost, this book is about racism.

If I could convince you to pick up any 2018 release, to add anything to your pre-order list, let this book be it. In fact, I’d consider it entirely forgivable if you stop reading this review right this moment just so you can scurry over to Amazon, or BookDepository, or whatever site of your choosing, and click that pre-order button, because this book is incredible, witty, hilarious, dark, intense, suspenseful, and most of all, IMPORTANT. 

→ jane mckeene ←

Auntie Aggie used to say I was like as not to poke Satan with a stick just for fun. Guess not much has changed.

My god, what do I even say about Jane? Jane is the most delightful, witty, self-deprecating, hilarious, insightful, strong-minded, brave, selfless, and brilliant heroine I have read in such an incredibly long time. I don’t believe I’ve loved a heroine so much since first meeting Katniss Everdeen nearly a decade ago. Jane can go from making you laugh in one moment to tearing up the very next. There were even a couple of times I found myself, out loud, saying, “No, Jane! No! Nooooo!” because she’s so fearless and stubborn.

→ katherine deveraux ←

Katherine didn’t pick the face she was born with, and it ain’t her fault her perfect smile makes me want to break things.

In the beginning of the story, there’s a bit of bad blood between Jane and Katherine; Katherine doesn’t much care for Jane’s wildness, and Jane can’t help her varying shades of green envy over the fact that Katherine, despite being biracial like Jane, is light-passing enough to get treatment the rest of Miss Preston’s girls will never see. We see very quickly that Jane is self-aware enough to work past the girl-on-girl hate, though, so it never felt like a petty trope as it may in some other stories.

While Katherine is never the star of the show, she really develops tremendously as a character, and by the end, I was rooting for her just as much as I was for Jane.

→ the villains ←

It’s a cruel, cruel world. And the people are the worst part.

You may be inclined to think, “Oh, it’s a zombie book – the zombies are the villains!” and, with most books, you’d be right, but not Dread Nation. The zombies are the looming threat, of course, but the scariest monsters are the white people parading themselves around, treating the black and indigenous peoples like cattle to be branded, sold, and worked to death. Jane’s story offers a perspective on some of the less-discussed aspects of how black individuals have been treated, such as having medical experiments tested on them, being accused of sharing more biological makeup with animals than humans, or being worked unfairly with laughably little pay.

What is perhaps the worst part of the things these awful people say throughout the book is how familiar some of it sounds even today. There is still so much racism going on in this society, and Dread Nation offers important insight into the fact that, just because slavery has ended, does not mean we live in a post-racism world. There’s even a fantastic nod to the arguments many people have against things like equal opportunity employment and Affirmative Action plans, through the words of one of the white men in Summerland:

“It was mostly the colored folks that fought the shamblers. No surprise there. Government pays to send them to those fancy schools while real mean like me are left to fend for ourselves. If it wasn’t for all that money going to educate [slur], we have better weapons to fight the undead, and better training for real men, too.”

→ representation ←

I know I am more than my skin color.

In case you didn’t know, Dread Nation’s racial representation is own-voice. As a white woman, obviously, I cannot speak for POC on the rep in this book, but what I can say is that it felt wonderful, and bold, and beautiful. This book does not apologize for its blackness, and it warmed my heart so much to see these words and feelings on paper. Jane’s story is going to make a lot of people uncomfortable, but to be fair, we all need to be pushed out of our comfort zones every now and then; otherwise, we never learn and grow.

Jane talks and thinks a lot about her skin color, because it affects literally every aspect of her life. She explains how she is biracial, and how desperately she wishes she looked white, like her mother. She recognizes how much easier her life would be if she was light-skinned. She addresses internalized racism and the fact that she fears some of her acquaintances have taken up the white men’s views only because it is all they have ever known, and it is easier to be the white man’s “pet”.

Most of the white folks in the room are nodding and giving praise. I glance around the Negro tables and realize a few of those folks are as well. That makes me sad and scared.

There is also representation for Native American individuals, and talk of how poorly treated they have been over the years. We get to spend a short amount of time with a man who Jane describes as “the most remarkable man I’ve ever seen”, and there is even a bit of discussion regarding how he was forced to take up a “white” name in order to fit in more properly.

Momma used to say the Indian was even worse off than the Negro, because instead of being taken from his land he’d had his land taken from him.

On top of the racial rep, there is also a bit of diversity in the sexualities represented; there’s brief passing mention of bisexuality, as well as a reveal that one character is on the ace/aro spectrum. There isn’t much exploration into either of these aspects, but it’s viewed as perfectly normal in Jane’s eyes.

→ final thoughts ←

I simply cannot say enough good things about Dread Nation. I’m forcing myself to shut up now, because otherwise, I could literally ramble at you about this story for days. The bottom line is: this is an amazing story of a strong, heroic young black woman killing zombies, protecting her friends, missing her family, and doing everything in her power to dismantle the white supremacy that has caged her and her loved ones for so long. It is beautiful, important, and one of the singular best books I have ever had the pleasure of picking up. I feel so incredibly privileged to have been granted the opportunity to read Dread Nation early and will be pre-ordering my finished copy as soon as I finish this review. I can only hope you will do the same.

CONTENT WARNINGS: racism, sexism, violence, gore, death

All quotes taken from an unfinished review copy and may differ from final release. Thank you so much to Balzer + Bray for providing me with this ARC in exchange for an honest review!


Releases April 3, 2018

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Buddy read with Melanie and Elise!

13 thoughts on “Dread Nation – Justina Ireland (ARC Review)

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