Dread Nation by Justine Ireland — New Review

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.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead — New Review

The Underground Railroad was a gift from A, and I’m fairly sure she said she chose it because it had won a load of prizes. It also fits in well with other things I’ve read — books like The Floating Theatre and Sugar Money. I was a bit worried, because of all the prizes, that The Underground Railroad was going to be dense and difficult to read, but it pleasantly surprised me on that score. I found the early chapters very intriguing, especially when the narrative shifted away from Cora’s perspective to that of a slave-catcher called Ridgeway. It took me way longer than it should have to realise The Underground Railroad was set in an alternate history, and I admit I don’t know enough about the details of the America of this period to be sure what pieces are off the rails, if you’ll excuse the pun.

Cora remembered Caesar’s words about the men at the factory who were haunted by the plantation, carrying it here despite the miles. It lived in them. It still lived in all of them, waiting to abuse and taunt, when chance presented itself.

The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead

I can see why people liked The Underground Railroad, especially the first third or so. It reminded me of The Handmaid’s Tale in the way it built the story out of both things that did happen and things which didn’t. Certain things that happened to Cora also reminded me of Offred — she was dehumanised in ways that were probably fictional, but felt like they could have been real.

Unfortunately, the middle of the book really let it down, as far as I was concerned. I expected to see more of Ridgeway after we got a taste of his perspective, and I was disappointed he was featured for such a limited amount of time. As for Cora, it’s perfectly understandable that a slave character would have limited agency in the society we’re presented with, but there are long sections of the book where Cora doesn’t do anything, and those didn’t really push the story forward in any satisfying way. Even when Cora does take action, it didn’t have much of an emotional impact on me as a reader.

The afternoon stretched the shadows like taffy…

The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead

The end picked up, a bit, in that it was certainly interesting to read about the Valentine Farm, and wonder how much of it was based on true historical fact. Sadly, I didn’t really connect to any of the characters. I’d recommend this to readers who enjoyed The Handmaid’s Tale because I do think it has some interesting similarities in style, though I have to admit I think The Handmaid’s Tale is probably the better book.

Next, I’ll be reading The Fandom by Anna Day.

Rating: 2 out of 5.