Justina Ireland, Dread Nation
If social media is anything to judge by, zombies are everyone’s least favorite supernatural menace. I happen to adore iZombie‘s brain-eating clairvoyant detective Liv Moore and Discworld‘s Dead Rights activist-cum-Night Watch constable Reg Shoe (because honestly, why wouldn’t you love a zombie who sports a “Glad to be Gray” badge?), but it seems that in general, zombies try our collective patience, since we tend to think of them as the mindless, murderous hordes that populate the land on The Walking Dead. They’re not clever or calculating. They don’t have poisonous ambitions for world conquest. And Warm Bodies notwithstanding, they don’t work well as potential love interests or sexy seducers. There just isn’t much one can expect from them.
But if general zombie behavior can be a bit on the predictable side, they can have a sizable impact on history. Let us say, for instance, that during the bloodiest battle of the American Civil War, the dead rose from their graves to attack the living, whereupon the war came to an abrupt end as both sides came together to fight the common enemy. The living have been trying to hold off the advancing undead ever since. It’s the 1870s, and two distinct philosophies have arisen to answer the question of why the dead awakened. One claims this “shambler” apocalypse is a punishment for the evil of slavery, and Americans must build a better, more just society. The other insists that the shamblers are a punishment for the war itself, in which brother fought brother, and the pre-war social structure which placed African-Americans at the very bottom must be preserved. Those who hold the latter view are keen to use African-Americans as shambler fodder to keep whites safe, for such is the duty of slaves, after all.
This is the context in which Justina Ireland’s YA fantasy adventure novel Dread Nation is set. We see this world through the eyes of Jane McKeene, who believes herself to be the daughter of a plantation mistress and a black man, and who is studying, along with a number of other African-American girls, to be an “Attendant” — a shambler-slaying protector and companion to a white lady. When it comes to killing shamblers, Jane is second to none, but in the course of the novel, she’s confronted by some painful and horrifying truths about the system in which she is caught.
Jane is the novel’s chief selling point, a smart, brave, resourceful heroine who takes no BS from anyone. When others try to strip her of her power and indeed her very personhood, she fights back with all her will and holds tight to her belief in herself. When she makes mistakes, she learns from them, and when she faces heartache, she keeps moving forward. Ireland uses first-person POV to bring her to life, and while many a first-person narrator in YA fiction may come across as shallow and generic, Jane’s voice is richly distinct. Hers is a unique and individual mindset, brash and acerbic yet ever keen to see justice done.
Another point in the novel’s favor is its prioritizing of friendship over romance. We do get glimpses of Jane’s attraction to a rakish acquaintance, but she’s too busy battling shamblers and the corrupt leaders of a Western settlement to lose herself in love. Her most important relationship is with Katherine, a fellow academy student who, when we first meet her, has all the earmarks of an archetypal Mean Girl. Because Katherine is Jane’s pet aversion, we’re inclined to judge her harshly at first. Yet it turns out that underestimating and undervaluing her beautiful acquaintance is Jane’s biggest mistake. Slowly but surely, step by step, a bond forms between the two girls, and by the end they’re in the adventure together, trusting and supporting one another. I look forward to seeing how their relationship progresses in the next book.
This novel, along with Children of Blood and Bone, has me excited about the future of YA fantasy fiction.