Review: Dread Nation by Justina Ireland

In May, my book club read Dread Nation by Justina Ireland. Unfortunately, I missed the meeting because I was travelling. So I thought I’d share my thoughts here instead.

Cover of Dread Nation showing a black girl inpost civil was era clothing holding a sickle Summary

Jane McKeene lives in an America where the rise of the dead interrupted the Civil War and the Native and Negro Education Act requires certain children attend combat schools to learn to keep others safe.

Jane attends Miss Preston’s School of Combat in Baltimore where she trains to become an attendant. Though becoming an attendant is one of few options for Negro girls like Jane to live better lives, Jane just wants to return to Kentucky and her mother.

But when Baltimore families begin to disappear, Jane soon finds herself in the middle of a conspiracy—one that could be even more deadly than the restless dead.

Let’s Get Into It…

When I first heard about Dread Nation, I was happy for Justina Ireland. (She’s been a vocal supporter of diverse books.) However, I also thought that I was over zombies. The Walking Dead had kind of exhausted the topic for me. Or so I thought. As I listened to my Dread Nation audiobook, I found myself entranced by Jane’s narration and swept up in a story that felt incredibly fresh. Ireland takes the survival aspects of zombie stories and combines them with politics, race, relationships, and a coming of age tale to create something much more than I could ever have expected. It truly is a remarkable book!

Jane’s narration is fun. She is unapologetic, frank, and daring, while also very caring and heartfelt. I quite like her. She has her flaws for sure; she doesn’t always think things through. But she seems like a fresher take on the “strong female protagonist” than some other YA characters I’ve read recently. She doesn’t dwell in angst. Instead, she opts for action. Furthermore, she is somewhat straightforward in communicating her romantic interests and sexual desires. I can’t wait to see where her story goes (when does the sequel come out?!). Bahni Turpin narrates the audiobook and does a wonderful job capturing Jane’s attitude; I was quite happy choosing audio over print just for her.

Ireland’s supporting cast is also strong. Katherine, Jane’s reluctant friend, is much more “proper” than Jane, which leads to some fun tension. And because Katherine passes as white, there’s also a lot of commentary on identity (which group she belongs to) and colourism surrounding her. While Jane has a romantic interest and doesn’t shy away from mentioning sex, Katherine doesn’t have such feelings for anyone. I hadn’t followed much of the hype around this novel, so I wasn’t aware that there was going to be bi and aro/ace representation. So when Katherine explained she wasn’t interested in relationships, it really stood out to me. If you read my reviews, you may be aware that I’m not big on romance plots. Even so, I wasn’t aware that I’d been waiting for a character like Katherine.

The other part of this novel that really stood out to me was the letter excerpts in each chapter. These letters are between Jane and her mother, and their inclusion allows readers to see a different side of Jane (through her mother’s perspective as well as through what Jane chooses to share). They also allow another plotline, one separate to the main action, to play out. It was very cool to see the blend of epistolary and first-person narration. I am curious to see how they are shown in print though, as in audio format I didn’t always notice the switch right away, but that may be my fault since I often listen while doing other things.

I’ve seen some people say they found the novel a bit slow. I didn’t have this particular issue. However, I will say that after a full novel I feel like we’re just getting started. Dread Nation sets up a world, introduces great characters, and gets you invested in the conspiracy, but it leaves a lot open. But that’s what sequels are for, right?

Final Thoughts: Dread Nation is a fresh take on the zombie novel that any fan of spunky protagonists and commentary on power dynamics will enjoy.

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