The cover of 'Dread Nation', by Justina Ireland was almost enough to make me buy the book without knowing anything else about it. It's a cover that's proud of itself. A cover that shows grace and threatens violence. A cover that says, 'You don't know me yet, but you should'.
Still, everyone knows you can't judge a book by its cover. You judge it by reading its first page. If the author can't get themselves together to deliver a hook on the first page, how likely is it that the rest of the book is going to be worth your time? So this is what made me by the book:
A PROLOGUE IN WHICH I AM BORN AND SOMEONE TRIES TO MURDER ME
The day I came squealing and squalling into the world was the first time someone tried to kill me. I guess it should have been obvious to everyone right then that I wasn’t going to have a normal life.
It was the midwife that tried to do me in. Truth be told, it wasn’t really her fault. What else is a good Christian woman going to do when a Negro comes flying out from between the legs of the richest white woman in Haller County, Kentucky?
I love the tone of this and its immediacy. This is a writer with a voice and the voice belongs to an irrepressible negro girl called Jane McKeene, who I was already rooting for by the end of the first page.
Oh, and there are zombies. Not just any zombies. Civil War zombies. In Ireland's alternative history, the Civil War was brought to an end when the dead started to rise as 'shamblers' feeding on and infecting their comrades. Both sides in the Civil War recognised the need to stop fighting each other and start fighting the dead.
And where does our Jane fit in? The story starts with Jane being almost ready to graduate from 'Miss Preston’s School of Combat for Negro Girls', after which she expects to find work as an Attendant assigned to defend a rich white woman from shamblers and inappropriate male attentions.
Justina Ireland explains at the end of the book that the Combat Schools were inspired by the 1860s concept of the 'American Indian Boarding Schools', which forcibly removed Native American children from their home and sent them to be 'civilised' in boarding schools that were designed to destroy their cultural identity by cutting off their hair, taking their clothes away from, forbidding them to speak anything but English and denying them contact with their families. In Ireland's alternate timeline, Congress passes the Negro and Native Reeducation Act, funding the creation of Combat Schools where negro and native children would be taken by force to be trained to stand between their white employers and the invading undead.
'Dread Nation' manages to be a lot of fun while avoiding being light-weight fluff. Jane is a remarkable creation: intelligent, resilient, brave and holding back a mountain of rage. The story is exciting and fresh. It would make great television.
The book moves along at a clip, with smooth, effortless world-building delivered as part of a tight plot where current actions are set in context by old letters between Jane and her mother. I found myself wanting to turn the pages to see what would happen next but most of all I wanted to learn more about the irrepressible Jane.
The book is full of dry, angry humour, most of it directed at the dangerous stupidity of bigotted white men too convinced of their own superiority to protect themselves from threats. Racism is front and centre, driving the actions of men disappointed by the inconclusive end to the Civil War.
I found that, by the second half of the book, I was deeply engaged with Jane and her companions. Hers is a life filled with pain, mitigated by very little hope and motivated by rage and a refusal to submit or give up.
'Dread Nation' is great entertainment. It's also a great way of showing the way racism and slavery twist the world out of shape, making the racist and slavers more monstrous than the shambling undead.
I strongly recommend this book to you. I was so impressed by Justina Ireland's writing that I immediately got a copy of the second book 'Deathless Divide' which carries on the action.