In Dread Nation (2018), the American civil war was interrupted when the fallen soldiers on both sides rose again to eat their friends and foes alike. In short: things were a bit of a mess. Our protagonist, Jane, was born two days after the first shambler (the term for zombies in this story) rose on the battlefields. Dread Nation is about her life in this new world.
When I picked up Dread Nation it did cross my mind that zombie stories were a bit of a trend a couple of years ago. I picked this one up because it is in the running for the Andre Norton Award for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy (awarded with the Nebula Awards) — so if any zombie story is going to be good, it ought to be this one. I was not disappointed.
With few reservations, I thoroughly enjoyed Dread Nation. I am consistently a sucker for rough-and-tumble-with-a-heart-of-gold characters, and Jane is just that. She faces everything that comes at her with quick wits and a certain disregard for rules. It’s a combination I find endearing, and in Dread Nation I found the stakes of potential mistakes kept me engaged with her risk-taking.
One of the most gratifying things for me in reading is being surprised. Dread Nation surprised me at multiple turns — those stakes I mentioned earlier? Climbed in a way I did not predict as the story progressed. The way Jane and the other main characters navigate new information and situations was as satisfying as those situations were surprising.
Justina Ireland centres the story on African American people in an America where slavery may have ended, but the sociopolitical landscape is still fraught. Jane’s identity is central to the story. Her experience as a black girl in a world where slavery is less than two decades back and there are zombies across the country are not unrelated things. Dread Nation leans on the historical side of its ‘historical fantasy’ billing by exploring Jane’s experience via the attitudes and assumptions of the people around her. In this, Dread Nation is not just another zombie story — to the strength of the narrative.
Dread Nation has a lot going for it — it moves at a good pace, the characters are interesting and likable, and the story goes places I didn’t expect. Aside from a couple small issues where some story beats fell flat for me, Dread Nation was a very worthwhile read. I am looking forward to the sequel, Deathless Divide, scheduled for publication in 2020.