Fear In Ink: DREAD NATION Book Review

Miguel Rodriguez kicks off a series of recurring horror literature reviews with DREAD NATION by Justina Ireland!

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This is my first article for a brand new column, and I want to ease y’all into it. I couldn’t help but oblige when my friends at Dread Central asked me to start a column on horror literature. They have, after all, been great partners to independent creators, as well as festivals like my own Horrible Imaginings Film Festival.

It is exciting to see that partnership extended to authors of genre literature (and/or artists, in the case of graphic novels). Because this column is a new undertaking, I’m starting with a book from a couple of years back, which I just finished voraciously reading. And, yes, it has “Dread” right in the title!

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Penned by Justina Ireland, Dread Nation is a young adult, or YA, novel. While I don’t usually gravitate toward that section of the bookstore, I found the premise of this one irresistible. When the story begins, we learn that the sudden rising of the dead soldiers littering Gettysburg has brought The Civil War to a grinding halt.

Yup, it is a 19th-century zombie story. This has invited comparisons to obvious titles like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies or Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, which is fair enough, but while I throw no shade to any of those fun and quirky books, Dread Nation is far richer, more clever, and, dare I say–meatier–than any of the other novels I have read in this trend. Alan Moore’s Watchmen, which reimagines historical events as if superheroes had actually existed, has a stronger thematic connection to it. In the case of that graphic novel, America wins the war in Vietnam, Richard Nixon enjoys several terms as, basically, a US dictator, and the march toward global mutually assured destruction becomes all but unavoidable.

The cleverness of Ireland’s novel comes in how it not only reimagines history but also how it twists the well-worn tropes of the zombie apocalypse story. Following a brief detailing of the appearance of the dead in the prologue, the narrative blasts ahead nearly two decades. Generally, a zombie story involves rough-and-tumble survivalists eking out a meager existence while constantly on the lookout for zombies, which have essentially inherited the Earth. In Ireland’s story, the Civil War is a generation-old memory and the existence of the undead has become a mere challenge that the system of the time (including systemic oppression, racism, slavery, and the burgeoning “science” of eugenics) has adapted to meet. There has not been an Emancipation Proclamation as we know it, but rather a shifting of slavery from the plantation to the new battlefield.

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Unlike Romero’s DAY OF THE DEAD above, the society in DREAD NATION chugs on.

The protagonist caught in this shift is Jane McKeene, a 17-year-old “student” and one of the more prestigious of new “combat schools” that have popped up to train young Black children in the art of killing zombies, or, as trend dictates this novel renames them: “shamblers.” The political parties have also completely adapted, with the Survivalists–advocates of the current system of training former slaves as slayers–on one side of the spectrum and the pacifist Egalitarians on the other. Guess who holds power? 

Zombie stories are usually a tool for envisioning world destruction, but in Dread Nation they are the catalyst for imaginative world-building. It is part horror, part western, and even part steampunk. Steam-powered mechanical “ponies,” for example, have replaced horse-drawn carriages since shamblers have pretty much eaten all the horses. Jane was born on a plantation mere days before the dead rising on the battlefield, so her life grew part-and-parcel with this dead new world. She is a bi-racial Black girl born to one of the richest white women in Kentucky.

As a character, her background becomes an important way for Ireland to explore systematic oppression in a more nuanced way. As in our reality, not all schooling is created equal, and not all slaves are treated equally, and Colorism plays a large role in how characters are treated and what opportunities they are afforded. On a more macro level, the “opportunities” provided by a good combat school gives an illusion of benevolence to its charges. These include, at their apogee, the possibility to one day serve as an “Attendant,” or glorified bodyguard, to society’s finest. Cities, which have become walled fortifications to protect the wealthy and powerful, tout their own freedom from the shambler scourge, while the rural areas still require trained former slaves and indigenous folks to escort people from one place to another. Politicians use the relative safety of the cities and control over the media to placate the public and hold onto their power. The familiar abuts the fictional in the world of Dread Nation, and it is not always nice.

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That background is key to understanding the decisions–both good and bad–that Jane has to make when she joins occasional boyfriend Red Jack and school rival Katherine Deveraux in an adventure that takes them, against their will, from Baltimore to Kansas. There, they face a small-town Survivalist experiment that will make their worst nightmares pale in comparison. Corruption imbues the law, the organized religion of the town, and the very means of scraping by–but it is all hidden beneath a veneer of respectability that is more fragile than anyone would care to admit. When the veneer cracks, blood will run!

There is plenty of action and top-notch suspense to keep you turning the page. Despite the YA label, you can expect plenty of the violence that the zombie genre demands. I have just started the sequel, Deathless Divide, so I am eager to continue Jane’s adventures. She kicks ass. Dread Nation is enjoyable on multiple levels: a horror story, a new twist to the zombie subgenre, a historical fantasy, and a sociopolitical commentary. Take one or all of those things and you will have a hell of a good time. Jane kicks ass. 

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Author: Justina Ireland


Publisher: Balzer + Bray, a YA Imprint of HarperCollins Publishers

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