At first glimpse, everything about Justina Ireland’s novel Dread Nation intrigued me. I loved the cover with its rich, blue tones and appreciated the subject's outfit, Civil War with a touch of steam punk. I’ve always been interested in films and books set during the Civil War era but the notion of a zombie-infested, alternative history fascinated me.
Our protagonist Jane McKeene was born two days before the dead began to rise again at Gettysburg. In this new alternative timeline, people of colour are no longer kept under the yoke of slavery for it it has been discovered that there are remarkably adept at putting down the dead. Forced into a life of service, Jane McKeene is training to become an Attendant, an expert in weapons and etiquette who will protect the most valuable members of society.
But all is not well in Baltimore County, for the dead are rising faster than they can be put down and Jane soon realises that several families have gone missing. As she gets caught up in the midst of a conspiracy, she and her friend Katherine are transported to a brave new town on the Kansas frontier, one with high walls to protect against the dead but dark secrets at its heart. As Jane challenges authority and fights the system, she begins to learn just what is at stake in this flawed oasis.
Dread Nation is a thoroughly exciting novel full of battles and never-ending action. I enjoyed everything about this book from the descriptions of Civil War-era dresses to the antics of Jane and Katherine. What I found most interesting was the prominent commentary on race relations and social class. It might seem utopian to replace the scourge of slavery with a facade of freedom but the Native and Negro Reeducation Act in Dread Nation is as much about inequality, racism, an imbalance of power and exploitation as slavery and Jane constantly addresses this in the novel.
If you love young adult fiction set in the Civil War era mixed with the old Wild West and a smattering of zombies thrown in, you'll enjoy this book. My only complaint doesn't relate to the themes of the book or the plot but the actual storytelling. Throughout the book, Jane spends a great deal of time speaking about a specific event in her life. I won't go into the actual details of it, for fear of spoilers, but it's pretty central to the story and the development of her character.
Towards the end of the book, she exposes her version of the event as a complete fabrication and so we learn that our trusted narrator has been lying to us the whole time which makes us doubt everything we have learned about her character. I understand that the author was exposing Jane as an unreliable narrator but it didn't quite work for me.
Nevertheless, I did enjoy Dread Nation and I will definitely be catching up the next novel in series. I give it four out of five stars and recommend it to lovers of diverse fiction and alternative histories.