Dread Nation is an alternate history where in the immediate aftermath of Gettysburg, the dead rose and started eating the living. This threw the young United States into disarray, and in a panic the white folk forced Native Americans and African Americans to attend government-funded combat schools so that they would fight the shambling undead to protect the white folk. Jane is one such girl, a young lady on the verge of womanhood, daughter of the richest woman in Kentucky, but also half black.
The book is split into two parts: the first takes place at Miss Preston’s, a school of combat for ‘Negroes’. Jane McKeane is one of the best, a competent, intelligent fighter who wants to prove herself and return to her mother’s tobacco plantation. The world is overrun with shamblers and every residential habitat is behind some kind of protection: bobbed wire fences, walls that need guarding. But the shamblers are getting worse, and people are disappearing. This leads to the second half of the book where Jane and Katherine are taken against their will to a town called Summerland, a family-run town where the preacher and sheriff rule as religious zealots and dictators.
This isn’t the kind of book where Jane sucks at everything and needs to be trained: she’s just about to graduate and is a competent, experienced warrior. A ferocious fighter, with instinctive reactions and a sassy mouth, Jane McKeane is a wonderful heroine to spend time with. She’s caring, a natural leader, and self-aware enough to know that she’s incredibly jealous of the prettiest girl in school, a girl pale enough to pass for white named Katherine whose relationship with Jane, over the course of the books, evolves from rivals who can’t stand each other to something akin to friendship. It’s one of the best aspects of the book. Katherine is more concerned with fashion and finds her appearance a curse, whereas Jane recognises it as just another weapon.
Quite a lot of the book is dedicated to world building: reinforcing the status between white folk and people of colour, and learning about the shambler plague. What seems confronting to me, an atheist who believes in racial equality, is seeing the way Jane and her peers are regarded by the wider world. Jane often plays the role of a ‘dumb Negro servant’ to get what she wants: giving people what they think they want is a weapon of hers. She faces religious persecution and racial persecution and the whole thing is, to me, very confronting, Author Justina Ireland said she was inspired by the murder of an African American teen by white police officers, and even though I find a lot of the language and beliefs in the book confronting, I had to keep reminding myself that this is actually how people were treated and in some cases are still treated today, one hundred and fifty years after the alternate history begins.
Even after reading an entire book where most of the white people are racist, some of the people of colour prefer the subjugation, and almost everyone is called Negro and other confronting racial slurs, I’m still uncomfortable writing it myself, even in the context of this review.
Although this book is an alternate history, it has major crossover appeal for dystopian fans. I enjoyed Dread Nation a ridiculous amount, and I recommend it to anyone who enjoyed similar stories like Vampire Academy, where the dhampirs are second class citizens guarding the more valued Moroi, and any stories where women just plain kick butt, like The Hunger Games and Divergent.
I received this book for free from Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.