Dread Nation: The Civil War Zombie Novel You’ve Been Waiting For

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.

If that’s all the description you need to pick up the book, you can get it here: https://www.amazon.com/Dread-Nation-Justina-Ireland-ebook/dp/B071RQX7W9/

seriously a good sci-fi book y'all
She kills zombies with sickles. With sickles! Get this book.

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?”

Original Sin

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.

Six Wakes, Mur Lafferty’s Spaceship Murder Mystery Book, Is Incredible

This Nebula Award nominee disorients and terrifies from the start and only tightens the screws from there

Your eyes pop open, and you’re locked in a pod with no memory of having entered it. You don’t know how to get out. You start remembering — you’re a member of a small crew on an interstellar ship. Your last memory is moving into your quarters and attending the pre-launch festivities. When you finally struggle free of the synth-amneo fluid cradling you in your pod (no small feat in zero-g), you see your corpse floating in front of you, among the rest of your slaughtered crew. And your (dead) body is decades older than you remember it being.

Body floating in space
It’s not clear from the cover exactly what happened, but it’s safe to assume it’s pretty bad

That’s how Six Wakes starts, bombarding the reader with particle after particle of WTF until the narrative splits entirely from the mundane world. It’s the story of six clones selected to tend an interstellar ship carrying thousands of frozen people to an Earth-like planet. Cryo-sleep is fine for the humans, but clones (which are, legally, a different species) can just regenerate themselves endlessly and run maintenance for the hundreds of years it will take their less durable counterparts to get from point A to point B. Once you legally become a clone, you can maintain a “mind map,” basically a terabytes-big thumb drive that holds an imprint of everything you know and are. When you die, your mind map is loaded into your new brain, and you wake up as a 20-year-old. Of course, you are sterilized by law, as you are considered your own offspring. You have to maintain a mind map, which is subject to search and seizure by the authorities at any time. If you kill yourself, you’ll never be resurrected, so even if you’re practically immortal, you still have to deal with your 80s every time.

The problem in Six Wakes is that the crew wakes up to see their old bodies strewn gruesomely across the cloning bay, with no memory of how it happened. The terror is deep and weird from page 1 — the crew knows they were murdered, but have no idea how it happened.

A ship whose habitable space is fairly small, the grimness that comes from being a fresh murder scene, and the fear of not knowing what happened aren’t even the main source of dread. The big problem, the terrifying problem, is that you’re certain one of the people you’re looking at killed you.

As the characters attempt to figure out what happened, they start learning more about each other. The most interesting part of the book, aside from the high concept of cloning, is this narrative trick of having the primary action happen in the most claustrophobic place, trapped on a ship with [a] murderer[s], but having each of the six main characters’ backgrounds happen all over a wide-open far future world, ranging from a jail cell in Asia to a hacking lab on the Luna colony.

In the primary “oh no we’re trapped on a murdership” narrative, the story terrifies and creates constant pressure. The secondary narrative, the six backstories that are key to figuring out what happened, expands and deepens the world by exploring how each multi-century old clone became who they are.

As more facts about each clone are slotted into place, the shape of their predicament becomes more and more clear — the deep dive into the psyche of each character builds the map of what happened directly prior to their emergency resurrection. Each step in the spare, high-tension environment of the ship propels the story forward, and each revelation of a character’s past lends the narrative a depth and majesty. It’s a welcome contrast, like rich cream poured over an acidic key lime pie — both are good alone, but together they’re perfect.

This is a murder mystery action thriller, with a heaping helping of “look at all this cool tech” thrown in. The magic of it is that the very basis of the mystery (oh no we died we better find out who killed us) brings up such profound questions of identity, of personhood, that the glorious pulpiness of fleeing a murderer is layered over the granite bedrock of serious philosophical enquiry — when I say “I”, who do I mean? What makes a person a person, and what can unmake them?

The novel is so good from the very start. I flipped through the first few pages in a bookstore months ago and immediately put it back, thinking it had to be a trick — no way can the rest of the book maintain that level of greatness. I picked it up when I saw it was nominated for a Nebula — it does deliver on the promise of the first five pages. There are a few things to nitpick (one specific part of the resolution, involving saliva, broke suspension of disbelief for me), but Mur Lafferty is a powerful, imaginative author. Any writer who can build worlds as deep and rich as she can, who can craft a story that delights with its inventiveness and terrifies with its revelations, is one who deserves rapt attention. I am definitely snapping up whatever book she puts out next.

Logan is a great balance of comic book movie action and painful emotional tragedy

And by great balance, I mean both aspects are set to 11 in Hugh Jackman’s last X-Men film

Logan gives Wolverine, one of the most popular comic book movie stars, a great sendoff. I suppose Wolverine himself won’t be leaving, but Hugh Jackman, the main reason the character is so popular, will be, and apparently he’s taking Patrick Stewart with him. The movie is a bit like Driving Miss Daisy, if Morgan Freeman were an alcoholic who just couldn’t seem to stop manufacturing amputees and Miss Daisy were an extremely dangerous telepath. The movie takes place years in the future. Charles Xavier has some type of degenerative brain disease, and whenever he has a seizure, he paralyzes everyone within a certain radius (including their lungs), so he’s living in a hole in the middle of nowhere. Logan is supporting him by driving a limo, apparently. All the other X-Men are dead. New mutants are not being born. Something is killing Logan slowly and painfully, and he’s drinking a lot and finally looking old (he was born in the 1880s). He’s aging, covered in scars, and limping, so his healing factor is ominously not working so well anymore. Add to this the sudden arrival of Wolverine’s murderous daughter clone Laura, who is on the run from the people who trained her as an assassin, and we’re off to the races! Spoilers follow. I guess they preceded too, but they really follow.

Logan is realistic, for a given value of realistic

The first thing that stands out about this film and sets it apart from other entries in the franchise, that makes it memorable (the only thing I remember of X-Men Apocalypse is an angry blue man and a collapsing pyramid) is its unstinting realism. If you replaced Logan’s claws with guns and his on-the-fritz healing factor with some good old-fashioned plot armor, John Wick style (ok John, maybe you have a bulletproof suit, but there’s a finite number of times people can shoot at you before one gets lucky and hits you in the face), and this could be a grim, gritty thriller movie about a grizzled ex-warrior who just wants to save his daughter.

Reality is the backbone of this superhero movie, which sounds weird when you get into the secret corporate labs, the kids with superpowers, and the man with giant claws. I’ll try to explain. The Hangover was just a movie about a group of guys going to Vegas, gambling, and getting drunk, nothing supernatural at all, but the underlying feel of it was completely unrealistic. It goes the opposite way in Logan. It’s a movie about a 150-year-old with a clone daughter and a telepath father figure all being hunted by a transhuman mercenary force, but underneath the superhero trappings is a story about age, and death, and loss. This is where the acting chops of Patrick Stewart and Hugh Jackman really come through. Those two men have carried most X-Men movies (with some help from Ian McKellen), and they are at the top of their form in this one. Stewart plays a feeble, confused, half-crazy Professor X perfectly — every line of his body radiates weakness, his voice cracks, he’s so frustrated at his helplessness he curses at Logan (yes, Professor X drops an F-bomb in this movie). Every single time you see Hugh Jackman’s face, decades of loss and disappointment hit you like a truck. His every movement, grunt, and word shows a man who is done with life, waiting to die. Their acting makes the movie work, and it’s so wrenching to watch this performance realizing you’ll never see them in these roles again.

Wolverine on a rock
20th Century Fox has every image of Wolverine extremely copyrighted, so here’s this one. Credit: Jonathan Othén | Wikimedia Commons | CC BY-SA 4.0

It’s not just those two characters that make this grim. The entire world they live in is terrible — the X-Men are all dead (most likely killed by Xavier when he first started having these attacks), the anti-mutant corporations are ascendant and hunting down anyone who is left, and one of the most beloved characters of the franchise is contemplating suicide. Everything is awful, nothing is good. 20th Century Fox brings you in with a promise of X-Men action, and you find yourself trying to eat popcorn to a Sartre play. Again, that’s part of what makes this movie so refreshing compared to the others, and it’s not like they don’t also deliver the action goods.

If you think Wolverine is violent, you should meet his daughter

This movie is not as action-packed as others in the franchise, but the little it does have really delivers. After a brief intro fight, Logan spends a lot of time just driving around, getting drunk, and taking care of Professor X. He meets his clone daughter and still nothing cool happens. She just sits in their hideout eating cereal. Just as you despair of seeing an X-Men movie at all, the mercenaries show up to take her back. They easily subdue Wolverine and send a couple men into the building to get her. You hear some screams, and she comes out and throws a SEVERED HEAD at the leader, then throws herself on the enemy with a viciousness paralleling only that of Wolverine himself. Her fighting style is acrobatic, and involves a lot of evasion, landing on people’s shoulders, and neck-stabbing. Whoever choreographed it should get a medal. It’s a joy to watch, and the incongruousness of a ten-year-old girl effortlessly murdering beefy, lumbering soldiers gives you a sensation that lands somewhere between hilarity and extreme discomfort.

Wolverine’s fighting style is more labored — less balletic but just as bloody. Laura (the clone daughter) fights like someone holding a samurai sword, and Logan fights like a guy holding a bat with nails in. He’s old, and he’s slow, and he can’t shrug off damage like he used to, but he’s still got the killer instinct. He struggles for every inch he gets, and that makes the fights more fun to watch. Too often in superhero movies, it’s hard to see how hard someone is working. Mutants with energy-based or telekinetic powers are fighting for their lives, and, oh boy, it’s time for them to really turn it up, and all they do is…grunt a little more and squinch up their face. Logan does not have that problem — he is no longer an elite fighter, but he just does not stop, and you see his determination in every muscle flex, every enemy punch deflected, and every bodyblow absorbed. It really means something when he finally sinks his claws in someone. Speaking of sinking claws in people, they actually show it. It never made sense in the other X-Men movies when Wolverine would stab someone and the guy would just bloodlessly hit the ground. Well, Logan is rated R, and holy hell it shows. His fights involve multiple amputations, buckets of gore, and lots of realistic stabbing. When he puts his claws into someone’s skull, you see them come out the other side covered in brain matter. It’s so graphic it’s uncomfortable, but it’s better than the touch football version of fighting he was using in previous movies.

Let’s talk about Logan’s feelings

I spent so much time talking about the action scenes because that’s how you approach an X-Men movie, right? How cool the fighting is, how much fun it is to watch people use their powers, etc. There’s another level to this movie though: actual character development and a real focus on the human side of things. These are people, not superheroes. Many of the previous X-Men films tried to carry the whole emotional arc of the movie on the back of the old tension between Magneto and Professor X. It gets stale. In Logan, a half-feral mute falls in love with her genetic father and learns that murdering everyone all the time is maybe problematic. A man who was one of the most powerful and respected mutants of all time is now feeble and dying, desperately trying to advise his last surviving pupil (Wolverine) to do something that really matters. An old, cynical loner who is convinced the last thing left for him to do in this world is leave it finds something to care about. That last one sounds corny, and I suppose it is, but the difference with Logan and other “heart of gold” stories is that Logan absolutely does not have a heart of gold. He’s an old, angry Canadian, and his heart is full of bitters and blue ruin, full stop. By the end of the movie, he has a heart that is maybe a bit shiny if you catch it in the right light, but that’s it.

Maple syrup on a table, only thing better from Canada is Wolverine
Maple syrup, the best thing America has imported from Canada after Wolverine. Credit: Miguel Andrade

Another good human touch to this movie is the humor. There’s not much, god knows, but it is there. Xavier and Logan bicker like an old married couple. The girl does not understand that violence doesn’t solve everything (mostly because it does solve everything). For example, they are at a gas station and she’s riding a little mechanical rocking horse. When it stops, she flies into a rage and is about to murder the coinbox to get more money when Logan just hands her a quarter and gives her a look. Another thing I found funny (and I’m not sure if this is intentional) is that almost every single mercenary chasing Laura has at least one robotic arm, which you absolutely would need if you spent your days raising a baby Wolverine. These small, almost non-existent touches of humor are pleasant in this film, and in a more general sense are what makes the Marvel (not actually the same studio as this one, but whatever) movies more successful than the DC ones — they have a sense of humor. The recent Batman/Superman movie was so terrified of looking goofy that it ended up looking like a steaming pile of gloomy, humorless garbage. There’s got to be a little humor, no matter how serious the movie, because there’s always a little humor in people, no matter how serious the person.

Logan: the rest is silence

There are plenty of scenes of mutant-fueled carnage in this film, more than enough to satisfy the moviegoer who just wants to see Hugh Jackman kill stuff, but the real focus of the movie is an assemblage of deeply broken people taking action to do something that matters, regardless of how much the sharp edges of their shattered pasts grind together within them with every step they take. The beginning, middle, and end of the movie are exercises in unremitting tragedy, which a.) might be overkill but b.) some people’s lives really are that bad. I definitely got something different than what I was expecting, but most of the unexpected was great.

In the climax of the movie, old, almost-dead Logan takes an injection of a serum that supercharges his powers. He’s finally back in form, ready to tear apart a legion of soldiers without breaking a sweat. Wolverine finally achieving full strength was extremely gratifying to the part of me that watched X-Men cartoons as a kid, but the gritty emotional realism comes through here as well. He’s not just back physically, but emotionally as well, finally ready to fight for the person he loves. In the climax, the two focuses of this movie — serious emotional piece and action-packed superhero film — come together like hydrogen and oxygen, in a way that entirely satisfies the part of me that will always love any movie that involves Arnold Schwarzenegger + guns and the part of me that makes a point of watching whichever film won the Oscar that year. I left the theater not sure if I liked the movie or not, not sure exactly what I had watched, and that is a result of the director taking a risk with this film, which is almost always better than doing a retread of a successful formula. After a week’s reflection, it’s clear that any movie that can successfully blend well-done action escapism with emotional catharsis is a great achievement.