Balzer + Bray, 2018, 455 pages
Jane McKeene was born two days before the dead began to walk the battlefields of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania - derailing the War Between the States and changing the nation forever.
In this new America, safety for all depends on the work of a few, and laws like the Native and Negro Education Act require certain children attend combat schools to learn to put down the dead.
But there are also opportunities - and Jane is studying to become an Attendant, trained in both weaponry and etiquette to protect the well-to-do. It's a chance for a better life for Negro girls like Jane. After all, not even being the daughter of a wealthy white Southern woman could save her from society’s expectations.
But that’s not a life Jane wants. Almost finished with her education at Miss Preston's School of Combat in Baltimore, Jane is set on returning to her Kentucky home and doesn’t pay much mind to the politics of the eastern cities, with their talk of returning America to the glory of its days before the dead rose.
But when families around Baltimore County begin to go missing, Jane is caught in the middle of a conspiracy, one that finds her in a desperate fight for her life against some powerful enemies.
And the restless dead, it would seem, are the least of her problems.
I did not expect to like a Young Adult zombie novel, but gave it a chance because it's also an alt-historical and the cover is kind of cool. Dread Nation is actually pretty good, and if it weren't YA, I'd recommend it unreservedly.
Here, the zombie apocalypse started at Gettysburg, right in the middle of the Civil War. The dead rose and started munching on both sides, resulting in an immediate cessation of hostilities. Nothing brings warring states back together like the living dead. In the years that followed, the armies managed to beat back the zombie hordes in enough areas to restore a semblance of civilization. Slavery was ended, but instead, Negroes and Native Americans are all sent to combat schools to learn to fight zombies. So the zombies kinda sorta freed the slaves, but now they're all spear carriers (literally) to protect white people.
You may deduce that Dread Nation is a bit messagey. For the most part, the message flowed with the story. Jane McKeene, the mixed-race daughter of a white woman and a black man, speaking as the first-person protagonist, is outspoken and perceptive about the injustices she experiences as an "Attendant" who is expected to give her life to protect rich white ladies, but at least her soapbox is historically appropriate.
Jane starts at her combat and etiquette school in Baltimore, and gets mixed up in some political intrigue and a mad doctor's scheme, which results in her and her frenemy, a beautiful light-skinned "passing" fellow Attendant, being sent out West to fight zombies in your basic Wild Frontier Town run by your basic Evil Sheriff and Evil Fundie Preacher who is fond of talking about the Curse of Ham. It's all fairly typical genre stuff, and yet I found the story interesting enough even if I saw most of the twists coming, and the action was exciting and who doesn't like a bad-ass zombie-slaying chick with scythes?
Dread Nation has the typical flaws of YA novels written for mostly female audiences — Jane is a Fierce Grrrl wish-fulfillment character who can beat grown men twice her size in hand-to-hand-combat, supposedly because she went to an elite combat school to learn to become a zombie-killer. By the end of the book, Jane has no less than three love interests — one white, one black, and one Native American. With some hints that she might not even be completely averse to a little canoodling with her frenemy, the beautiful hottie all the guys are lusting after. The author really seems to be trying to cover all her bases here.
But YA cliches aside, I enjoyed it and I want to read the rest of the series. Yes, of course, the first book ends with things very much To Be Continued.
Off Topic Rant:
The scythes are stupid, though. I know, they look cool and they're "ninja weapons" (of course ninjas are nowhere mentioned in Dread Nation — fortunately) but they are farming implements that were historically only used as weapons because farmers weren't allowed to use swords. Come on. There's a reason that actual warriors used swords, not scythes! Maybe the author just didn't want Jane to resemble Michonne too much.
Do you think she'd rather have scythes? No, no she would not.
(I know, I'm griping about the verisimilitude of martial arts and melee weapons in a book where zombies interrupted the American Civil War. We all have our hobby horses...)
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