This is the CONFEDERATE we need and deserve.
(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through Edelweiss. Trigger warning for racism and misogyny, including sexual violence.)
The day I came squealing and squalling into the world was the first time someone tried to kill me. I guess it should have been obvious to everyone right then that I wasn’t going to have a normal life.
It was the midwife that tried to do me in. Truth be told, it wasn’t really her fault. What else is a good Christian woman going to do when a Negro comes flying out from between the legs of the richest white woman in Haller County, Kentucky?
An Attendant’s job is simple: keep her charge from being killed by the dead, and her virtue from being compromised by potential suitors. It is a task easier said than done.
Every time I sit down and attempt to write this review, three things jump to mind. (Reviewing books I so thoroughly enjoyed? HARD. I never feel like I can do the writing justice.)
1. This is the Civil War-era alternate history series HBO should be throwing money at, mkay. BY THE BOATLOADS.
2. This tweet by the author, posted as I was elbow-deep in her Confederate zombie viscera.
Look, if I can write an entire book set in 1880 without once using the N-word you can, too. https://t.co/bX8iAKIwrw
— Justina Ireland (@justinaireland) August 28, 2017
3. THAT COVER.
Okay, now on to the review!
Jane McKeene was born on a plantation just a few days before the end of the Civil War. Only, in this timeline, the war didn’t end in a victory for either side. Rather, the North and South were forced to band together to fight a new threat – the zombies that started rising from the ruins of their battlefields.
While slavery as it was is no longer technically permissible, African-American and Native American children are conscripted to fight the dead. Middle schoolers are sent to boarding schools, where they receive training in weaponry, fighting techniques, and – in the more hoity toity institutions – proper manners and grooming. After graduation, they’re free to seek employment guarding upper-crust white folks, though they’re treated like servants, at best.
At least, this is the case up North: Jane is in training at the elite Miss Preston’s School of Combat in Baltimore. The zombies that wander the desolate and mostly-abandoned landscape between settlements make communication difficult, and there’s no guessing what conditions are like for Attendants down south or out west. But when Jane and a friend stumble into a conspiracy involving the Mayor, the staff of Miss Preston’s, and Baltimore’s richest citizens, they’re kidnapped and sent to a small, dusty new outpost in Missouri, where time seems to have slipped (or been forced) backwards and Attendants are seen as disposable objects at best.
I’ll start with what didn’t work for me, on account of I don’t want to end this review on a negative note. There’s a lot going on here, especially in terms of the conspiracy and its many theories. Sometimes it can be difficult to keep track of all the threads, but by story’s end, it all becomes clear. Likewise, the result of the impasse between North and South is slow to crystallize, which proved a little frustrating for me. Additionally, there’s a bit of an issue with the pacing; the first half of the book feels much slower than the second, and the big even that delineates the two almost makes parts one and two feel like two separate books (albeit in the same series). But otherwise the world building is rich and intricate and as captivating as it is chilling.
Even with its imperfections, there’s so, so much to love here. Dread Nation is an interesting and thoughtful twist on the zombie genre; I read a fair amount of zombie books, and this one stands apart from the rest. The geographic structure of the United States in a postapocalyptic zombie world makes sense, and I enjoyed the various technological innovations humans employed to adapt to this new life. (For example, Jane has never seen a horse; instead, they use mechanized “ponies” to traverse the countryside.)
The kind of murky outcome of the Civil War feels real and organic; I can totally see the Native and Negro Reeducation Act and Attendants coming to pass under these circumstances. Many of the details – even those only briefly touched upon in passing – are alt. history flourishes of our actual timeline. Case in point: when Ida explains that there are loopholes around the prohibition on slavery, such as claiming a POC has been bitten, as infected people have no rights. This is very much reminiscent of white people using the prison-industrial complex to procure free labor in the form of prisoners after the end (or should I say “end”?) of slavery. Basing the combat schools on the American Indian boarding schools of the late 19th and early 20th centuries was an inspired touch.
The characters are complex and compelling, drawn with care and nuance. People who begin as one-dimensional stereotypes – prim and proper Katherine; roguish womanizer Red Jack – are given depth as the story progresses, so that your opinion has done a 180 by the last page. Jane, Kate (sorry, Katherine), Mrs. McKeene (“Momma”), Red Jack, Daniel Redfern, the Duchess, Ida – Dread Nation truly boasts an outstanding cast of characters. Again, I won’t go into detail because spoilers, but the secrets each is harboring lend the story added authenticity and heartbreak, well beyond anything I might expect of a project like Confederate. #OwnVoices, all the way.
While not explicitly listed as the first in a series on Goodreads, Dread Nation ends on a cliffhanger, one with some serious sequel potential. If not a cable tv series, please let us have Dread Nation 2? From the Dedication and Author’s Note at the beginning to the Author’s Note at the end (yes, there are two, and they are both A+), Dread Nation gave me all the feels. A definite must read.
(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)