the Little Red Reviewer

Dread Nation, by Justina Ireland

Posted on: August 11, 2020

Ok,  let’s get into it with Dread Nation.  This book has been on my TBR for ages, I just never got around to picking up a copy. When a friend of mine mentioned she had two copies, I asked to borrow one.   The only things I knew about this book, before I read it were:

  • I am in love with the dress she is wearing on the cover
  • The book is about killing zombies
  • Something alternate history civil war something?


First off, I really liked this book, but I also had some issues with it (not the issues you might think!).


and LOL, I thought this was going to be a hard review to write . . . .  Skip to the end if you don’t want to read 1200 words of me rambling.


The gist of the story is this –  instead of the South surrendering, the American Civil War was sort of “put on hold”, because the dead were rising as Zombies.  The Union and the Confederacy stopped fighting each other, and instead used their dwindling troops to fight an ever growing army of the shambling dead.


To keep civilians safe, governors, mayors, and other civic leaders need to come up with something, and need to come up with something fast.  But who counts as a civilian? Who counts as being worth keeping safe?  Well, it’s the 1870s, all the civic leaders are white, white people are landowners and tax payers, so basically, white people are considered worth keeping safe. Black people and Native Americans are sent to combat schools, where they will learn to fight the shamblers.  Thanks to the Negro and Native Reeducation Act, it isn’t a choice – you will attend the school, you will be re-educated that protecting white people is your place. If your free will can’t be educated out of you, it will be beaten out of you. (In Ireland’s Author’s Note,  she implores the reader to learn more about the United States’ system of removing Native children from their homes and sending them to boarding schools such as the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, to be “civilized”.)


Jane’s mother tried to keep her home, and hidden, as long as possible. But the day came when the truancy officers couldn’t be resisted, and Jane found herself at Miss Preston’s Combat School for Negro Girls, in Baltimore, where along with combat skills she will also learn how to behave in civilized society.  If she’s very lucky,  Jane will become a personal bodyguard for a white woman. If she isn’t lucky, she’ll be sent to the front lines.  Jane is talented, but impulsive. She loves reading, and she’ll trade just about anything for the newest pulp novel.


And if Jane is very, very unlucky, if she stumbles onto a dangerous secret, she’ll be thrown into a train car and sent to the frontier.


The first half of the book is some hijinks at the school,  the reader getting introduced to Jane’s friends, and Jane sharing some details of her youth. Told in first person, it’s interesting to see what she chooses to omit, and how she makes excuses for getting into trouble at school. Jane has a fairly narrow worldview (or puts on like she does), and I’m not sure how I felt about that.  The second half of the book, which I won’t tell you much about because spoilers, takes place in a frontier town called Summerland.


I really dig that each chapter starts with a snippet of a letter that Jane is writing to her mother, and then later in the book (not a spoiler), the chapters start with a snippet of a letter that Jane’s mother has written to her.  It made me chuckle, in the beginning, that Jane is getting into trouble at school, and how she glosses this over in her letters home.  What I should have been paying closer attention to, is if Jane is glossing things over, what is her mother glossing over?

To be honest, the beginning of the book was just okay for me. There was nothing wrong with it, it just felt very surface to me.  Jane at school, Jane writing letters to her mother,  lots of 1870s overt racism.   But, I enjoyed the narrative voice, the story goes by at lightning speed, the book is a very fast read, so I kept reading.   It was probably 2/3 of the way through before I felt really invested in what was going on.


And i’m not sure if I’m reading way too much into this, or trying to make up my own excuses for why it look me so long to form an emotional connection with these characters, but if you were an enslaved girl (and they might not be calling it slavery, but that’s exactly what it is) who has no freedom or agency, how trusting would you be of some random reader? How likely would you be to wear your heart on your sleeve?  Maybe you’ll keep everything surface for a while,  see how the reader reacts to you,  before jumping into the deep end.  I don’t know if that’s what Ireland was doing or not, but thinking about it that way helped me understand why it took me so long to care about Jane and Kate, and Jane’s mom.


Thank you Jane, for finally trusting me enough to tell me more about you, and about your mom.   Thank you Kate, for finally trusting Jane enough to tell her more about you.  Jane, I understand why you waited so long to tell me. Doubly thank you for trusting me, Jane, because i think if we were to meet in real life, you wouldn’t like me very much.


Look, I don’t read a lot of zombie books, because to be honest, I find headshotting zombies to be boring. Kill a zombie, kill another one, kill another one, find some more ammo, keep killing.  Unless we’re talking about Shaun of the Dead (Ok ok, Train to Busan was fun too), I’m not interested.  BUT, what makes a zombie story (or any “monster” story)  interesting to me is when the author is showing that the zombies themselves are powerless. They might be hungry and unstoppable, but they aren’t the monsters in the story: People are.  Now that is something I can sink my teeth into.   And Ireland does this perfectly.


The shamblers that Jane kills (her favoriate way is to behead them with a pair of sickles) are typically slow, and stupid.  They’re hungry, but she knows how they fight, and given a decent weapon she can take out a fresh one in a few minutes.


The father and son who run the frontier town of Summerland aren’t slow, and they’re not stupid. They are vicious, violent, horrible human beings, who enjoy watching people experience pain.  My gut response is that they are caricatures of racists, but nope, I think they are pretty typical racists. They’ve got God on their side,  they “just want to keep people safe”,  they’ve got the government on their side.  In my fantasy version of Dread Nation,  these assholes would be dead on page five.   But then the story would be over in like five minutes, and Jane wouldn’t have ever told me her secrets, and that wouldn’t have been good, either.


Things I loved about this Dread Nation – it was fast paced, I like first person POV, I loved that the chapters open with letters. I LOVED that Ireland talks about passing light.  I LOVED the reveals at the end.  I loved that this isn’t a book about zombies, it’s a book about human monsters. (srsly, read up on those Native schools, ok?)  I like reading historical fantasy because it makes me want to read more about what actually happened and educate myself.


Things that annoyed me about Dread Nation – it felt really YA. YA readers, is this a YA book? I don’t read enough YA to know, so please help me out. It took me FOREVER to get invested in Jane and her life.  And  I still keep convincing myself that the Snyders are mustache twirling, over-the-top bad guys. I usually love first person POV, but I found Jane’s internal monologeu-ing to be, well, overly monologue-y?  At least early in the story, there’s a lot of telling not showing, maybe to give the readers as much info as quick as possible? Jane helps other people, and is selfless, but her inner monologue makes her seem super self-centered (maybe that i just an artifact of first person POV?).


Thanks for reading my ramble!  and seriously,  YA readers, help me out!

2 Responses to "Dread Nation, by Justina Ireland"

This is definitely a YA book. I haven’t read it but Justina is a local author so I’ve met her before at some local book events and she’s often on the YA panels. 🙂


Aaah, I have a cope of this that I’ve still not read, and up the pile it’s been bumped! Awesome thoughts! 😄

Liked by 1 person

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some of the books reviewed here were free ARCs supplied by publishers/authors/other groups. Some of the books here I got from the library. the rest I *gasp!* actually paid for. I'll do my best to let you know what's what.
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