Saturday, May 19, 2018

Book Review: Dread Nation, by Justina Ireland

Dread Nation
(Dread Nation, Book 1)
Justina Ireland
Hardcover, 464 pages
Bilzer + Bray
April 3, 2018
African-American Fiction, Alternative History,
American History, Diverse Reads, Fantasy, Feminist Fiction, Historical Fiction, Horror, Humor, Paranormal Fiction, Satire, Social Justice, Southern Gothic, Young Adult Fiction
Source: Amazon

Synopsis Jane 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.

I participated in a buddy read of this novel with Barb @ Booker T's Farm. Be sure to read her review, which you can find HERE!

Buddy Read Links

I must point out, right up front, that I am definitely not a fan of the horror genre. That might seem paradoxical, since I do enjoy reading urban fantasy, which sometimes almost crosses into horror.  I don't like the horror genre, however, because its writers thrive on the graphic depiction of fear and gory scenes. Besides, many urban fantasy novels are also paranormal romances, which, of course, do interest me! 

So what in blazes got me to read Dread Nation? Well, several months ago, I came across this novel on the blog of one of my book blogger friends, Barb (see above), and it immediately caught my eye! So Barb suggested we do a buddy read, and I agreed. Surprisingly, I didn't run screaming from the book! Instead, I found this to be a very interesting, even entertaining read, despite the seriousness of its deeper themes. But that was because it was what can be called "horror lite". In other words, Dread Nation is not a typical horror novel. In fact, I was pleasantly surprised to find other, stronger elements involved. Incredibly, there was even some humor in it in the form of snarky observations made by its female protagonist.

Jane McKeene is indeed a very strong, dynamic protagonist. The cover alone gives some hint of this, but then, when I actually encountered her in the pages of the book, she became a very real person. Her sense of justice and adventure, as well as her natural leadership abilities, make her not only likable, but admirable, as well. And her sense of humor, even in dire situations, hits the nail on the head every single time!

The background history of this novel -- which is an alternative version of real events -- is a fascinating, if appropriately horrifying one: the Civil War was actually brought to a halt by the sudden appearance of zombies walking the fields of battle, killing Union and Confederate soldiers alike. Surely one would expect to find some blood and gore here, right? Well, no. This event took place in the year Jane was born, and is not detailed at all, but merely mentioned in order to set the scene.

This unexpected event could have changed the attitudes of those who advocated slavery, but sadly, it didn't. Instead, African-Americans (referred to as "Negroes" at the time) were then legally required to train at special combat schools in order to defend wealthy whites. And this is where the author had a field day unmasking the not-so-subtle demon of racial discrimination. Through Jane, her spokesperson, Ireland depicted the blatant prejudice of the society of the time. While doing so, she also took aim at the prejudice and discrimination of our own times. And with a feminist heroine, no less!

This novel also involves a mystery that Jane is bent on solving, as one of the families which have disappeared are the Spencers. Lily, sister to an old boyfriend of Jane's, Jackson, has disappeared right along with them. 

The action moves from Baltimore, Maryland, to a strange location out in the West, where Jane emerges as a strong leader in the fight against the zombies. The reader sees her development throughout the book, as she battles not only the zombies (known as "shamblers" in the novel), but, even more importantly, the unjust treatment received by her fellow zombie fighters.

Ireland has woven a very believable historical tapestry here. While reading this novel, I frequently found myself believing in the reality of the zombie hordes, the combat schools, and Jane's ability to always, somehow, come out victorious, even against her worst enemies (none of which, by the way, were zombies, ironically enough). 

Dynamic secondary characters made this novel even more believable. The first, and most important of these, was Katherine, whom Jane delighted in calling "Kate", precisely because Katherine hated being called by this shortened version of her name. Although she and Jane were a study in contrasts, they also became good friends, as well as allies in the fight against the prejudice of the times. 

Jane's mother is another important secondary character, although the reader gets to know her mostly through the letters she and Jane send to each other. This woman was very influential in making Jane who she was, and she also hid a secret that, if exposed, threatened to bring tragedy to the slaves at her plantation, not to mention Jane herself.

In regards to this character, I was initially very sympathetic toward her. But, early on, I caught something in her attitude toward Jane.....I'm not sure exactly what it was. Later in the novel, this woman did something entirely shocking and horrifying, so I ended up actually hating her! I couldn't believe  that she had actually turned into a totally despicable person.....

Gideon, the brilliant scientist who sees Jane as who she truly is -- a dynamic, strong woman who acts on her principles -- is another great secondary character. He obviously admired Jane, and it was more than obvious that there was something going on there, too. He, like Jane, bucked the status quo, and I would have liked to have seen more of him in this book. Perhaps he will be featured more often in the forthcoming sequel. I certainly hope so!

Another interesting, though less important, character, was Jackson, also known as "Red". Although I didn't like the offhanded way in which he often treated Jane, I did like how concerned he was about his sister's disappearance, and the way he ended up helping Jane in her quest to escape an intolerable, brutal, situation.

Then there's "The Preacher"..... This character was obnoxious and evil in the extreme, with his disgusting "sermons" about "the divine order" of things, in which Negroes were "divinely ordained" to serve whites. Of course, this character not only represented the racist beliefs of the time, but was also meant as a satirical instrument to ridicule and expose the blatantly prejudiced views of some Evangelicals in our own time. 

I did have a problem with the inclusion of this preacher, though. In my opinion, his presence in the novel should have been balanced by that of at least one other Christian who held opposing views. Not all Christians who lived during the real historical Reconstruction Era after the Civil War were racists. (This period lasted from about 1863 to 1877.) Before the Civil War, there was also the Abolitionist Movement, not only in the States, but also abroad, and there were many Christians involved in it. In the States, such names as Charles Finney, Theodore Weld, and Harriet Beecher Stowe were well-known. So this was something that I found very disappointing.

More than anything else, I see this as a brilliant satirical novel which encapsulates the racist mindset. I also see it as an equally brilliant exposition of feminist ideals. Unlike Kate, Jane never stops to consider whether her actions might be considered "proper" or "genteel" for a young lady. She simply acts, and her actions come from a sense of justice for her people, as well as for all women. She is her own woman, and no one can talk her into acting as the society of her time thought she SHOULD act, not only as a woman, but as a member of an "inferior" race.

Despite all of my admiration for Dread Nation, especially its female protagonist, I am unable to give it the five stars I was sure it deserved when I began to read it. However, the book is so compelling, so well-written, that I cannot bring myself to give it less than four stars.

I have mentioned the shocking event regarding Jane's mother. I have also mentioned the problem with the stereotypical treatment of the Christian religion. There's one more thing, which I will not mention here in order to avoid spoilers. It concerns a shocking revelation toward the end of the novel, one that altered my overall perception of it due to its blatant immorality, as well as the fact that it entailed a very tragic loss of innocence....

It's really very unfortunate when an author makes his/her readers get totally immersed in a novel, only to throw the proverbial monkey wrench in the works towards the end of the story. That's just what happened here. I realize that there are characters who do deserve what they get, because they've done some very evil deeds, but, as another proverbial saying goes, "two wrongs don't make a right". That's all I'm going to state here.

I would still recommend this book to all lovers of alternative history, strong feminist protagonists, and books dealing with social justice. Despite its disappointing elements, this novel goes beyond the Young Adult Fiction genre to become a real tour-de-force, and I know I will never forget it! Although I was not quite satisfied with it, I would like to re-read it at some point in the future. It's just that Jane is such a POWERFUL role model for all young (and not so young) women! So I'm therefore eagerly looking forward to the sequel, which I will also buddy read with Barb! 


Justina Ireland enjoys dark chocolate, dark humor, and is not too proud to admit that she’s still afraid of the dark. She lives with her husband, kid, and dog in Pennsylvania. She is the author of Vengeance Bound and Promise of Shadows.


  1. Great review Maria.

    This book sounds like it is full of interesting stuff. The premise, involving The Civil War, zombies, racial issues, etc. seems so original.

    I agree with you that Christianity produced s mix of pro - slavery, racist thinking and anti - slavery, anti - racist thinking. I think that there are similar trends in it today. Sadly, I think that there are characters like The Preacher out there today too.

    Have a great Saturday!

    1. Hey, Brian!

      Thanks for the compliment!! <3 <3

      It SURE is, and I totally recommend it to you, in spite of the few things that disappointed me. And yes, the premise is DEFINITELY original! Well, since I'm really not into zombies, I have no other zombie books to compare it with. But I think that the zombies are almost incidental to this plot. There is SO much else going on! I think this novel could be classified as a modern YA masterpiece. I really do!

      Yes, sadly enough, there ARE pastors like The Preacher out there, especially in the so-called "Bible Belt" region of the South. It's SO ironic, too, considering that Christianity is supposed to be a religion of LOVE. Heck, I used to have a friend on Facebook who actually DEFENDS the Confederacy! And this same person is fond of posting Bible verses on Sunday..... I will NEVER truly understand people!

      Hope you had a great weekend!! Thanks for your interesting comment!! <3 :)

  2. I think if even you, a fellow not horror fan, likes this book then I would definitely like it as well. Ever since I read Stephen King's The Shining I've stayed away from horror because I hated that book. But I've read maybe two horror books that I did like so I'm definitely open to the genre. Great review!!

    1. Hi, Steph!

      Well, actually, I had a feeling this book wasn't going to be all that bad, in the horror department. And, indeed, it wasn't. Barb and I are calling this "horror lite". Lol. She's a true horror fan, though, so she wanted more "zombie action". Me, NOT being a horror fan, I was VERY happy there wasn't more of it! Lol.

      I read Stephen King story a long time ago, and was scared stiff!! NO MORE King works for me!! I avoid him with a ten-foot pole!! Lol.

      But seriously, I think this book deals so well with the racial issues of the time, and also, and very obviously, targets those of our own time!

      I am not open to this genre, unless, of course, I happen to come across another "horror lite" novel! Lol.

      Thanks for the compliment, and the nice comment!! HUGS!! <3 <3 <3 :) :) :)

  3. Wow, this is a very thorough review! I’m not a Christian, so I didn’t really think about that aspect of the story. There does seem to be a lot of annoying stereotypes about Christians in modern literature.

    Aj @ Read All The Things!

    1. Hi, A.J.!

      Thank you! I do try to create thorough reviews, but without giving much away. It's not always easy for me to do that, though. :)

      It's too bad that this author used a so-called "Christian" to stereotype in this story. But I would have been just as upset had she happened to use another religion. I just don't like stereotypes of any sort. Yes, there were Christians like The Preacher at that time in real history. However, as I pointed out in my review, there were also plenty of Christians who were active in the Abolitionist Movement, and who also worked for the benefit of former slaves during the Reconstruction period.

      And you're right -- there are a lot of annoying Christian stereotypes in modern literature. I guess the rotten apples give the rest of us a bad name....Sigh....

      Thanks for the interesting comment!! <3 <3 :) :)

  4. This is a detailed review, as ever Maria - thank you! This sounds like an interesting premise, and I'm sorry you found the ending compromised your enjoyment.

    1. Hi, Sarah!

      You're very welcome, and thanks to YOU for the compliment!! <3 <3

      Oh, this book is really fascinating! But yes, unfortunately, something that happened near the end did spoil things for me to a certain extent..... I still think this is a very worthwhile read, quite honestly! Hope you give it a try!

      Thanks for the nice comment!! HUGS!! <3 <3 <3 :) :) :)

  5. I kind of took a break from the computer this weekend so wanted to make sure I stopped by and commented. Man, your reviews are always so thorough and detailed - I love reading them. How you manage to write so much and still not give anything away is an awesome testament to what a good writer you are.

    I had so much fun doing this with you and am anxious for our next one in July. I STILL haven't given up on you reading a Stephen King book but will let it drop for now because Booker is giving me the "Evil boxer eye."

    In the meantime, I'll catch you here and on Goodreads!

    1. Hi, Barb!

      Yeah, there are times when you really need a break from the computer! Lol. :)'re so sweet..... <3 <3 <3 I do try to be thorough, yet without giving anything away. Thank you so much for the nice compliment!!

      This was DEFINITELY a LOT of fun, and I'm SO looking forward to our next buddy read in July!! YAAAAAAY!!! :) :) :)

      You're so funny!! You STILL want me to read a Stephen King book? Ain't gonna happen! LOL. At least not with Booker around to give you the "Evil Boxer Eye"!! LOL. LOL. LOL.

      Yeah, we need to keep in touch!! <3 <3

      Thanks for the very lovely comment!! HUGS TO YOU AND THE BOYS, AND WOOF, WOOF TO THEM!!! <3 <3 <3 :) :) :)


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