Justina Ireland’s Dread Nation is the story of Jane McKeene, a seventeen-year-old who attends the premiere ladies’ school in all of Maryland, Miss Preston’s School of Combat for Negro Girls. Young women go there to learn proper tea service and the most efficient way to separate a zombie’s head from its body. It is set in the decades after the Civil War, which ended in a very different way in this alternate history. At Gettysburg, slain soldiers rose up and began eating the living, so both sides banded together to repel the zombie threat. Humanity lives in a handful of fortified cities — Baltimore, Philadelphia, etc. The West is wild and open, but dangerously unprotected. The Lost States of the South are, well, lost. The only way to live there is in a bunker. Congress signed the Native and Negro Reeducation Act, which made it mandatory for Native and African Americans to attend zombie-slaying schools and hold the line against the undead, continuing America’s history of forcing marginalized groups to perform vital nation-building services. I read it because N.K. Jemisin (who wrote the best epic fantasy of the decade) recommended it repeatedly, and because I have a weakness for postbellum alt-history zombie yarns.
Slow* Zombies, Fast Pacing
Ireland’s pacing is top-notch. There’s nothing on this story but lean muscle. Each location, each character is described with only the words necessary to generate clear, vivid immersion. The narratives moves forward smoothly, impelled by alternating between the type of emotional involvement that YA does particularly well — the character you love is in a bad spot, is facing injustice or danger and you won’t be satisfied until you see how she gets out of it — and spare, bright action scenes like this one:
By the time I get to the girls I have a stitch in my side and my feet are screaming, but I push it all aside. I pick my way down the wall, jumping too early and dropping a sickle, nearly losing my balance when I hit the bottom. I grab my fallen weapon and pick my first target, a Negro girl wearing clothing that looks eerily like mine, and leap, sickle swinging to take the thing down.
Here’s the thing. If these were my sickles, my beloved, sharp, well-weighted combat sickles, they would’ve gone through the shambler’s neck like a hot knife through lard. But these are not my sickles. So the blade gets stuck halfway, the beast snapping its teeth at me and clawing at my arms as it tries to get free.
I place my foot behind the shambler’s and use my sickle to push it backward. Once it’s down I use a mule kick against the curved edge to force the blade through. The head goes rolling off down into the culvert and the body goes still.
Ireland somehow avoids breaking the sense of urgency and peril in the scene, even as the viewpoint character takes a paragraph to talk to herself about her sickles. Not quite sure how that magic works, but it does. The action is always satisfying, and each of Jane’s actions builds who she is.
* the relative speed of a zombie depends on how recently they turned — the newer, the faster
The Wind-Up Theory of Character Creation
Ireland builds her characters using minimal description. She gives an introductory sliver and then sets the character going. The clockwork engine of the narrative itself gives depth to the characters as they interact with each other. There’s the main character, Jane, who just wants to get home to protect her family. There’s her beautiful frenemy, Katherine, a fellow student at Miss Preston’s, whose dream is completing her education and becoming an Attendant (lady’s maid/zombie killer for the rich). There’s Jackson, the smuggler and once-sweetheart of Jane, who just wants to find out why his sister disappeared. There’s Gideon, the head scientist of a Midwest enclave who wants to use his knowledge to help humanity survive. Ireland introduces a character, gives a light description and an overriding motivation, and then, through interaction with each other and the narrative, who they are deepens, grows and changes. An example is the description of the white supremacist pastor who serves as the main antagonist of the book:
“The old man still smiles, thin red lips stretched garishly over large front teeth. His eyes are watery, the brown washed out to the color of a penny, his hair completely snow white and thinning. He looks like a walking skeleton, sun bleached and pale…”
There’s not a lot of description after this first introduction, but his actions throughout the book build every noxious layer of him.
It’s good to see Katherine and Jane, who start out as enemies, grow closer as they deal with the same difficulties. What’s great though is the book’s treatment of that required emotional geometry of the YA novel, the Love Triangle. It’s hilariously underplayed here. Jane basically looks at Jackson and Gideon every once in a while, thinks “they look good…” and then gets on with her life. She’s interested, and both boys are nice in their own way, but she’s got things to do. Very healthy approach compared to the general “OK sure, I have to save the world, but does he like me though?”
The moral shape of the book is impressive. It does not shy away from the founding sins of our nation, i.e. that most people who wrote the Constitution to ensure their own freedom thought owning people was acceptable. Even post-slavery, America is still built on the exploitation of marginalized groups. Ireland puts these concerns front and center, with “scientific” discussions from certain characters about polygenesis (the idea, current in the 1800s, that different races had different species of origin, a way to promote Othering and justify white supremacy). The main antagonist is a virulent racist. The two-tier racial system of zombie fighting, in which POCs are legally obligated to kill zombies to keep everyone else safe is most troubling, because it wouldn’t take much modification to make it work today. All it would take is a.) a zombie uprising, b.) the racial bias inherent in our legal system, and c.) a “Fight the Dead” program for convicted felons, because the 13th amendment has a hell of a loophole:
“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”
Fun, Not Fluff
Dread Nation has all the explosive, page-turning action inherent in a zombie novel, a spare but powerful style, and realistic interactions between vivid characters. It’s a great book — fun without being fluff. The foundation of its world and the stakes of its narrative are too heavy for that.