Confession: I have never read a book that featured zombies. In fact, I’m not sure I’ve ever read a book I’d class as ‘horror’ and I was hoping Dread Nation would be my first. Except, zombies aside, I don’t think it fits. Dread Nation didn’t inspire in me any kind of creeping dread or fear, and the tone and plot of the prose were too familiar to me to feel like an entirely unread genre. Which is not to say Dread Nation is a bad book — I thoroughly enjoyed it! — it’s just not a horror book and, possibly, not your usual zombie book.
Of the books I’ve read, Dread Nation seems to have most in common with The Underground Railroad. Not only are both centred on a black female protagonist, but both also ask ‘what if’ questions about a period of American history. ‘What if ‘the underground railway’ were a real train?’ in the case of Colson Whitehead. ‘What if the dead from the battle of Gettysburg were zombies?’ in the case of Justina Ireland. While the latter of those two questions may seem more frivolous, Dread Nation reads like a lot of research went into it, and the characters are both better developed and given more agency.
Jane and Katherine both have strong character arcs, as well as interesting histories, though Jane’s is revealed in something of a rush near the end of Dread Nation, which is a shame. Nonetheless, the relationship between them shines through, and I don’t doubt there’s going to be fanfic about it before too long. Justin Ireland provides an interesting world to play in, not too far from real American history, but with enough thoughtful details to stand out in the narrative.
I’ve heard of such folks, deviants who believe that some kind of enlightenment exists in watching the moment a man becomes a monster.— Dread Nation, Justina Ireland
While I usually read for character more than for plot, I have to commend Justina Ireland for constructing a story which really urged me to read on, and has left me more eager for a sequel than anything I’ve read in months. The ending feels satisfying, and yet there are still unanswered questions which make me long to read more about these characters and this world. I’m looking forward to seeing what else Justina Ireland writes, and until then I’ll be reading Talking as Fast as I Can by Lauren Graham.