I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating (Overall): 5 of 5 stars
Genre: Young Adult, Fantasy, Historical Fiction
Series: Book 1 of Dread Nation
Publisher: HarperAudio (April 3, 2018)
Length: 11 hrs and 56 mins
Narrator: Bahni Turpin
Dread Nation was my kind of YA. It explores history, politics, social issues, and racial relations. It features strong diverse characters, and a protagonist with one of the most powerful voices and charismatic personalities I’ve ever met. Oh, and it’s also got zombies. But leaving all that aside, I just loved this book, because at the end of the day it was a damn good story.
Set during American Reconstruction Era, Dread Nation stars Jane McKeene, a bi-racial young woman who was born just in time to witness the dead rise up and walk the earth, putting an unexpected halt to the conflict between the North and South. But even though the Civil War has ended, that doesn’t mean Jane is free. Along with the nation’s black and Native children, Jane was sent off to a combat training school as soon as she became of age in order to learn how to fight off the walking dead, known as shamblers. In Miss Preston’s School of Combat in Baltimore, Jane trained to become an Attendant, someone who fulfills a bodyguard-type role to protect wealthy white citizens.
Jane is told she should be grateful, that this life is better and safer than being on the frontlines fighting toe-to-toe with the shamblers where one bite can mean the end. But merely guarding the well-to-do isn’t good enough for Jane. Secretly, she patrols the countryside at night, protecting the poor and the non-white population as well. This leads her friend Red Jack to approach her one day with a request to help him find his sister, who has gone missing along with several others. Together with Katherine—Jane’s sometimes-friend, sometimes-rival—our intrepid protagonist embarks on a mission to uncover the truth about the disappearances, a dangerous path that would ultimately lead the young women and Jack into the heart of Kansas. There, they become ensnared in a nefarious conspiracy, coming face to face with horrors both undead and human.
Don’t let the inclusion of zombies fool you into thinking that this is a kitschy, tawdry kind of read, because nothing can be further from the truth. In fact, Dread Nation is a very important book which contains some very serious and heavy themes. That’s because the zombies here are not a gimmick; it’s instead an approach used by the author to explore racism and bigotry during this era in American history allegorically. Carefully constructed and deftly written, Dread Nation deals a number of issues that remain relevant today, examining the way society and individuals are affected by social norms and expectations. While her novel may be an alternate history set to a backdrop of an undead apocalypse, Justina Ireland succeeds in showing that, even in a world overrun with hordes of mindless flesh-eating zombies, society is still divided, and her characters continue to live under the effects of prejudice and oppression.
But of course, a good book for me also has to be more than just a message. Here, I’m pleased to say Dread Nation excels as well, delivering a fast-paced narrative that never experiences a lull. While the plot itself is rather simplistic, it’s no less amazing and fun to read because of it, and I truly enjoyed how delightfully fresh and un-formulaic the story felt. The book is divided into two parts, with former focusing on Jane’s life as an Attendant. This is also where a lot of the world-building happens, and here Ireland can be forgiven for a bit of info-dumping, since all of it is so fascinating. The second part of the book deals with Jane, Kate, and Red Jack in Summerland, a small Kansas town run by a bigoted sheriff and a fanatical preacher. The story keeps readers in suspense as our characters must use all their wits and guile to survive this terrible and hateful place, not to mention the frequent scenes of heart-stopping action featuring attacks by the shamblers.
And finally, this book would not have been as brilliant with anyone but Jane McKeene as the protagonist. Her mother is a wealthy white woman who has a complicated relationship with her bi-racial daughter, as revealed by Jane in her narrative as well as snippets from her letters featured at the beginning of each chapter. Jane’s upbringing at her childhood home and later at Miss Preston’s would shape the person she would eventually become—a smart, resolute, and resourceful young woman. I know YA fiction reviewers throw the term “strong female protagonist” around like candy, but Jane is the real deal. Her dialogue and relationship with her “frenemy” Katherine was also a huge part of what made this such a great read. It’s no exaggeration to say the characters made this book for me.
To be honest, I’ve been a bit disheartened by the state of YA fiction lately, so I haven’t been paying as much attention to hyped books (especially to hyped books). For that reason, I hadn’t even heard of Dread Nation until about a couple weeks before its release, so this was a novel that really came out of nowhere and swept me off my feet. Needless to say, I’m certainly glad I decided to check it out; I absolutely adored this book, and I can’t wait for the sequel.
Audiobook Comments: I only just finished listening to Bahni Turpin’s fantastic reading of the audiobook for Children of Blood and Bone, which was my experience with her as a narrator, so I could hardly contain my excitement when I found out she was the narrator for Dread Nation as well. In short, Turpin was perfect for this book and for the main character. I could hear her energy and enthusiasm in every single line she delivered, and more than once, I thought to myself, yep, that is absolutely 100% Jane McKeene. What an amazing listen, one that I really can’t recommend highly enough.