August 8, 2020

Review: Deathless Divide

Deathless Divide Deathless Divide by Justina Ireland
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I read the first book in this series, Dread Nation, two years ago, and gave it five stars. For good reason: it was a tightly constructed, scathing depiction of racism and white supremacy, in the alternate-history setting of a Civil War-era zombie apocalypse.

Unfortunately, while this book has the same setting and characters, it's simply not as good. The social and political commentary is muted, the pace is uneven and meandering, and the story is not as well plotted. Our two most interesting characters, co-narrators Jane and Katherine, are caught up in a kinda-mad-scientist chase story that doesn't have the same emotional resonance. (Yeah, the kinda mad scientist does have a point. Unless someone finds a cure for the "shamblers," the human race is on the road to extinction. But damn, Jane and Katherine go round and round before finally plugging his worthless ass.)

I understand the author's decision to send both girls further out West after their escape from the shambler-overrun town of Summerland. As she explains in her afterward, the history of the American West has erased black people, and she wanted to show that "Black Americans were everywhere in the American West: herding cattle and plying their trade as ranch hands, establishing homesteads and trying their hand at farming, and, yes, fighting against Native Americans." To be sure, this is a laudable goal, but that does not a story--or at least a memorable story, along the lines of the first book--make.

On the good side, I did quite enjoy the introduction of Katherine Devereaux as a POV character. The author was spot-on in her portrayal of both Katherine and Jane's voices, and the up and down story of their friendship is well told. Jane is even more ruthless and murderous this time around, for good reason, and Katherine spends a good portion of the book trying to save her from herself. They are the most important people in each other's lives (although their relationship is platonic; if I'm reading Katherine correctly, she's asexual--she has no interest in a physical or romantic relationship with anyone). At the end, after they have struggled against the living and the dead, they arrive in the town of Haven, California. Jane finally finds her mother, only to discover her mother has another life with her new husband and family and has no real interest in her daughter. Jane, a restless killer ever on the hunt for the restless dead, realizes she cannot stay in this oasis of peace.

I want something more.

I want the purpose I had when we went searching for the Spencers in Baltimore or struggled to escape Summerland. I want the freedom I had when Callie and I made our own way across the continent. I want the sense of justice I felt when I lived by my wits and hunted the men and women who plagued civilized society. Less killing would be nice, I don't miss that, but if killing is the price of freedom then I'm willing to pay it.

I just wish Jane and Katherine had a more tightly written book this time around. Hopefully, if there's a third volume, that will be rectified.

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