This is the fifth review in my ‘Buzzfeed Recommends Series’ in which I read and review all the books Buzzfeed recommended in their article: ’15 Brand-New Young Adult Novels That Are Just So, So, Good’. You can read the summary for that here. This book wasn’t listed as one of the books on the article, but it’s sequel was so I had to read this as well.
‘Dread Nation’ by Justina Ireland is a YA novel with fantasy, horror and historical elements, and it’s the first book in the ‘Dread Nation’ series. It currently has an average rating of 4.14 on Goodreads.
The book follows Jane McKeene, a young girl who is being trained to fight the undead at one of the country’s many combat schools for children of colour. She is training to become an Attendant, a fighter who is paid to protect high class women from not only the undead but other dangers in society, and is the best opportunity available to a girl like her. But Jane doesn’t want that, all she wants is to complete her training at Miss Preston’s before returning home and protecting her family from the undead. But when the families near the school start to go missing, and take her ex, Jackson’s, little sister with them she and her friends are pulled into a conspiracy that spans the country and leaves her fighting for survival against monsters, those dead and alive.
“It’s a cruel, cruel world. And the people are the worst part.”
I wasn’t expected to enjoy this as much as I did. I was intrigued by the concept but I usually don’t enjoy the zombie/the undead trope unless it’s ‘Shaun of The Dead’, but I ended up really like this! It didn’t feel like your typical zombie concept and it wasn’t just mindless killing and running from zombies, there was a conspiracy that ran throughout the whole country that was great fun to unravel the mystery of, and a focus on the evil of men who were alive – not just the ones who were dead. However, this is a very character driven novel, and whilst there is a good plot and lots of action, it does primarily focus on building the arc and the relationships of it’s characters.
First of all, Jane Mckeene, our protagonist was a really great character to read. She’s charismatic and has a very distinct voice, which is great because we read from her perspective for the whole book. Despite her tendency to lash out at times, and can be slightly petty I suppose, she’s a character you can’t help but love as you can see love is always her main driving force. She agrees to help Jackson out of love, she’s training to graduate from Miss Preston’s so she can go home and guard those she loves, she continues to fight the system that’s beating her down for the people she loves. I also really liked Jane’s growth in this, as not only did she get over this whole ‘I’m not like other girl’s’ mentality she had with Katherine in particularly, which would be great for teenage girls to read; she also realised the world is bigger than her and her family and friends, and I’m interested to see how Ireland progresses that character arc in the future.
Katherine is also a great character, and her personality contrasts Jane’s really well. I appreciated how we learnt more about Katherine over time and realised she wasn’t a stuck up snob, but someone who deeply cared and wanted to have friends, but just wasn’t sure how to go about it. In comparison to Jane she appeared confident at first, but as we got to know her better we realised she was actually less confident than Jane. She was riddled with anxiety, which was completely fair given the circumstances – most of us would have anxiety if the dead started rising, and it was a great inclusion of mental health from Ireland. I do like Katherine as a character and I want to learn more about her in the next book.
Some of minor characters were great too, I loved Jackson in particular, and spent most of the book needlessly mourning him, so imagine my joy when he cropped up alive again! I also really liked Ida as a character. There were other minor characters that were introduced that I would have liked to seen more from including Daniel, who had this weird air of mystery around him and I still don’t understand his motives, and I felt like a few of them were quite underdeveloped. However I won’t judge Ireland too harshly on this as there’s a sequel where perhaps this could be explored.
One of the things I enjoyed most about this was the focus on female friendships. At the start of the book there was a focus on Jane’s friendships at Miss Preston’s with people like Sue, and then later on in Summerland we watched her grow closer to Ida. However, the greatest exploration of female friendship in this was Jane and Katherine. I enjoyed reading about their relationship development as they went from practically strangers to close friends by the end of the novel who loved each other, and knew each other better than almost anyone. My biggest gripe with the relationships in this book were the half-cooked romances, Jane weirdly seemed to bounce from crush to crush with no explanation and sometimes it felt a bit sudden and irrational. I understand where it came from as Jane is desperate to be loved, but also I don’t think we needed to be reminded she was attracted to Gideon, Jackson and Daniel every time one of them walked into a room. Honestly, I think this book would have benefited more from having no romances.
As well as having great protagonists, Ireland has great villains too. Whilst the Sheriff and the pastor of Summerland were very clearly evil and that was fine and good to read, I liked Gideon more as a villain because by the end you still weren’t sure if he was a villain or not – he just give me villain ‘vibes’ personally. I particularly liked the discourse there was on where evil lay in the world – in the undead or the humans plaguing America as well. It was explored not only through gender and race but also class, which was all based on history and events we know took place – and still take place in America today.
The social discourse in this, whilst fairly obvious at times and not very nuanced – but you wouldn’t expect that necessarily from a YA novel, was good. It was woven in really well with action and mystery lying in the plague of the undead. As well as this you could tell a lot of the laws and rules Jane and her friends were subjugated to were inspired or based off of laws that African-American people were subjected to in American but also in world history. I would like to mention there has been criticism from people who are Native American on the representation of Native American people in this novel, you can find some information on that here. I have however chosen not to comment on this personality not because I don’t think it’s an issue worth talking about but because I’m not educated enough to speak on it.
Despite all this surrounding the characters and discourse of the book, the plot didn’t suffer. There was plenty of action with the undead throughout the novel and a conspiracy underlying the whole thing, surrounding religion and it was also built on racism. I would say however the plot is predictable at times, and I do worry as to how Ireland can move it forwards in the sequel without it becoming repetitive.
Overall this was a surprising read for me. I didn’t expect to enjoy this as much as I did but it was very well done with fantastic discourse surrounding American history and America today. Whilst I don’t believe it brought you could label as radical, perhaps you could argue it brought something new to the zombie genre. It was full of great, distinguishable characters and I have hopes for the sequel.
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