Published April 2018
*Review by Alexa*
When Dread Nation first pinged on my radar I immediately wanted to read it. Truthfully, anything that is described as being an alt-history book for fans of Westworld and The Walking Dead I’m willing to try. I’m a history nerd, a horror fan, and I love a badass heroine. Then the hype machine kicked into gear, and it gave me pause. Maybe it is because of my age, or just a result of my contrary nature, but when a book is as hyped as this one was it is a bit of a turn off for me because I’m usually disappointed (it’s not just with books, I do it with movies and TV shows too). Well, let me tell you, I am so glad I pushed aside that contrary nature to give this book a read because it is wonderful. I devoured this book, and it left me salivating for more. So, let’s get into it, shall we?
It’s a cruel, cruel world. And the people are the worst part.
First impressions of this book: it’s gorgeous. I know you aren’t supposed to judge a book by its cover, but let’s be honest, we all do, and this book has a cover of quality. The young woman clothed for battle and wielding a scythe would be enough, but the way she is slightly turned away and the look on her face let the reader know she has no time for them or their nonsense. It is a cover that lets you know what you are getting into when you crack this book open. In contrast, the rest of the book feels soft and delicate and very period appropriate. The pages are deckled (a favorite of mine), and the filigree at the beginning of each chapter combine to give the book a feeling of reading an old journal. A book doesn’t need to have a great cover or be pretty, but it does tend to add something delightfully extra to the experience.
There’s nothing better than the memories of others when you’re little and have no stories of your own.
For an alt-history story to work, the setting and world building must be done with a deft hand and be neither too heavy nor too light. Justina Ireland walks that thin line rather well to paint a reconstruction era dystopia that is chillingly believable. Ireland uses actual historical elements and then twists them to fit her constructed narrative. General Sherman’s famous march to the sea and Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn are two of my personal favorite examples and are interjected with a subtly that many books can’t match (or don’t know that they should). The most prominent example—and the most essential—are the use of Native American boarding schools. In Ireland’s novel the schools are used to train children, both Native American and African American, to fight the ‘shamblers’ (how perfect is that word for the era?!); however, in America’s actual history these schools were used to assimilate Native children into Euro-American culture by removing any of their indigenous culture and ripping children away from their families. These schools were repulsive and horrifying, and Ireland makes sure they are just as repulsive in her work.
Time ceases to exist for me. There is only the constant moan of shamblers, the swing of my sickles as I harvest…
As with the setting, the characters in Dread Nation are deftly drawn. Jane, the main protagonist, is an irreverent, no-nonsense, and aggressive young woman who will do whatever she can to survive. Jane doesn’t try to be anything she’s not, but she does learn from her mistakes, which allows her character to develop into more than just a shambler-killing soldier. Although the book is told solely from Jane’s perspective, Katherine (or Kate, depending on whom you ask) plays such an important role that I consider her the second main protagonist. The slow reveal of Kate’s story is done just as well as Jane’s and so gives her character the same depth. I don’t want to give anything away, but I will say that the relationship between these two—and how it changes—was part of the reason I found this book to be so great. The villains are slightly more generic, but that makes them no less awful and, in the case of the Preacher, terrifying. Trigger warning: be prepared to read some truly grotesque examples of ignorance/racism/misogyny/torture.
People wanted to believe them…they wanted everything to go back to the way it was before the war…That’s how men like the mayor maintained control. You believe strongly enough in an idea, nothing else much matters.
I could write about this book all day (don’t worry, I won’t), particularly the prevailing themes. The story is an examination of the United States, both during the reconstruction era and now. Ireland uses her story as an allusion to the social and political issues and injustices rampant in the United States today (although, to be honest, just because they are more prevalent now due to social media doesn’t mean they haven’t been happening). The realistic portrayal of the horrors inflicted on both the indigenous peoples and the black population are realistic and make the shamblers seem tame in comparison. Ireland doesn’t hit the reader over the head with it, but at the same time she insures its prevalence. I’ve said it before, and I’m sure you’ll have to read it from me again, but this is what good fantasy/sci-fi/horror should do: bring actual issues and injustices to light so they can be discussed and studied and, hopefully, be learned from. Ireland does this masterfully, and many other contemporaneous authors should take note.
But he’s convinced that if you can sell people on a dream of security and prosperity, then the facts are irrelevant. And, he’s right.
Basically, I loved this book. The lack of YA tropes was so refreshing, and everything from the setting to the characters was just so well done. This is one of those rare books that can be read on many different levels and succeed in all of them: it can be a simple and fun horror story, a well done work of alt-history, or an important and relevant piece of social commentary. Ireland blends a multitude of horrors—real and imagined—seamlessly to create a book that left me needing more. Regardless of your feelings of the controversy surrounding Ireland, read her book. In the author notes, Ireland also provides some information regarding the actual boarding schools perpetrated by the government during the era discussed in the book. These sources are valuable and worth reading. Knowledge is the best weapon, ladies and gentlemen, so arm yourselves.
Have you read Dread Nation yet? Loved it? Hated it? Let me know in the comments, and we can discuss!