Dread Nation by Justina Ireland
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This book is summed up perfectly on the jacket copy: "This is not your mother's Civil War-era zombie story."
Ah, zombie stories. A more straight-jacketed genre I cannot imagine. World War Z was the last book I read that really stretched its boundaries, and even it settled into the endless hamster wheel of the genre: run fast if they're fast zombies, slower if they're rotting ones, blow zombie heads apart/chop zombie heads off, and kill your fellow zombie slayers if they're bitten. Lather, rinse, repeat. The cycle is never ending, because the zombie can bite a helluva lot faster than humans can reproduce. Just about any zombie tale taken to its logical end has only that one end: Planet Zombie, until the sun expands to a red giant and swallows the Earth.
Therefore, the zombie apocalypse is not about the zombies...but about the humans fighting them. The better ones use the narrow confines of the story to speak not about the monsters our plucky zombie slayers are fighting, but about the monsters of our present day. Which is what this damn near perfect zombie story does, with its piercing commentary on racism, colonialism, and white supremacy.
The zombie apocalypse started at Gettysburg, when the dead soldiers rose again. As one might imagine, this pretty much curtailed the Civil War, as both the North and the South had to concentrate on killing the dead rather than each other. (Even in this alternate history, I gather Lincoln still issued the Emancipation Proclamation, although later on in the story, unsurprisingly, we find many white men in their little [supposedly] zombie-proof fiefdoms aren't paying any attention to it.) Typical of the white supremacist thinking of the day, white people aren't forcibly recruited into this never-ending war: freed slaves and Indigenous people are, under the Negro and Native Reeducation Act. Our protagonist, Jane McKeene, is one of them, a teenage girl training at Miss Preston's School of Combat for Negro Girls in Baltimore, to be a zombie (or rather "shambler") slayer and Attendant, protecting her white charge both from the undead and overeager suitors.
Jane is a marvelous character: clear-headed, pragmatic and ruthless. She knows what it will take to survive, and she does not hesitate. I don't know if I would call her likable, especially with some of the revelations at the end of the story, but she is riveting. The secondary characters, especially Katherine, the light-skinned black girl who gradually develops a close friendship with Jane, are equally well drawn. One thing I noticed right away is that every character is described, not only by the usual qualifiers of clothing/hair/eye color, but skin color, and this is just as much a part of the book as being able to chop off zombie heads. Indeed, as the story progresses, the real horror is not the zombies, but the racist and white supremacist culture Jane and her friends are struggling to navigate.
Like the best SFF novels, this book is using the tropes of genre to deliver a scathing commentary on today's society. If parts of it make (white) readers uncomfortable...well, that only shows how far we still have to go. This is a fantastic story, and I wouldn't be surprised if it gets nominated for awards.
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