Balzer + Bray, 2020, 560 pages
After the fall of Summerland, Jane McKeene hoped her life would get simpler: Get out of town, stay alive, and head west to California to find her mother.
But nothing is easy when you’re a girl trained in putting down the restless dead, and a devastating loss on the road to a protected village called Nicodemus has Jane questioning everything she thought she knew about surviving in 1880s America.
What’s more, this safe haven is not what it appears - as Jane discovers when she sees familiar faces from Summerland amid this new society. Caught between mysteries and lies, the undead, and her own inner demons, Jane soon finds herself on a dark path of blood and violence that threatens to consume her.
But she won’t be in it alone.
Katherine Deveraux never expected to be allied with Jane McKeene. But after the hell she has endured, she knows friends are hard to come by - and that Jane needs her, too, whether Jane wants to admit it or not.
Watching Jane’s back, however, is more than she bargained for, and when they both reach a breaking point, it’s up to Katherine to keep hope alive - even as she begins to fear that there is no happily-ever-after for girls like her.
I liked Dread Nation well enough to read the sequel, which is really just a continuation of the first book.
In this 19th century post-apocalypse in which zombies rose at Gettysburg, Jane McKeene and Katherine Deveraux are both graduates of Miss Preston's School of Combat Arts, where Negro girls are taught to fight zombies to protect wealthy white mistresses. In the previous book, Baltimore (and most of the East Coast) fell to the zombie horde, Jane and Katherine escaped to a Western town that turned out to be run by evil white men ('natch), and foiled a scheme by a mad scientist to cure the zombie plague.
Unlike the previous book, which was told entirely from Jane's POV, Deathless Divide alternates between Jane and Katherine as main characters. They start out together, but are separated when Jane is bitten and assumed to have been killed. Both have Adventures, but in the conveniently coincidental way of YA fiction, finally run into each other again in California.
It's an entertaining romp, but pretty much brain candy, and I didn't think the second book was as good as the first. Where the first had some reasonably interesting worldbuilding, establishing an alternate post-Civil War history with zombies, the second is basically just a revenge quest. Jane spends most of the book hunting Gideon Carr, the pretty boy mad scientist, to the point of obsession. Gideon's serum, which apparently really did work for some people (including Jane) has some interesting side effects, but these aren't really delved into, and whereas in the first book, there were some complexities in this post-slavery but definitely not post-racial world, the second book is pretty much entirely Jane and Katherine both coming to terms with the fact that white people almost universally suck.
I was actually annoyed by some inconsistencies. There are references to slavery, but in the first book Jane said that slavery had technically been abolished after the zombie uprising ended the war at Gettysburg. "Technically" because of course the whole point of the schools for Attendants where girls like Jane and Katherine trained was that blacks are still second-class citizens, but here slavery is described as if it never ended.
In the first book, Jane has a very conflicted relationship with her mother, who is herself a conflicted mixed-race white-passing woman, while Katherine was Jane's prissy frenemy, a very proper, very beautiful light-skinned girl. In Deathless Divide, Katherine gets a little more fleshing out, including her background as the daughter of a New Orleans prostitute, but both of them become rather flat. Jane wallows and broods and becomes "The Devil's Mistress," torturing and killing bad guys while pushing away everyone else in her hunt for Gideon Carr (but of course, by the end she's a mushmellow who just wants a hug, as we knew all along), but does take some time to wave the bi flag, while Katherine proudly declares herself a Colored Woman who isn't going to pass anymore, and also I guess she's representing for aces?
This book meets almost every requirement for "inclusivity," but ironically, almost fails the Bechdel Test (even Jane and Katherine's heartfelt conversations about being bffs forever inevitably get sidetracked by Jane talking about needing to kill Gideon Carr). And while I bought the conceit of Jane and other teenage girls being professional zombie-slaying bodyguards in the first book, Jane transforming into the baddest bounty hunter in the West — with one arm, to boot — tested my credulity.
Deathless Divide was okay as a conclusion to their story, but I'm not disappointed that the author has said it's a duology and that she has no current plans to continue the series (even though it ends on an open-ended note that certainly leaves room for sequels).
Also by Justina Ireland: My review of Dread Nation.
My complete list of book reviews.