Cover of Dread Nation: A Black girl in 1800s dress stands in front of an American flag, holding a scythe

About the Book

Title: Dread Nation (Dread Nation #1)
Published: 2018
Series: Dread Nation
Swoonworthy Scale: 3

Cover Story: No Sexy Scything Here
BFF Charm: Platinum
Talky Talk: Livin’ Up To The Hype
Bonus Factors: Shamblers, Unexpected Twists, Supporting Players
Factor: Controversial Author
Anti-Bonus Factor: Racism
Relationship Status: By Your Side

Cover Story: No Sexy Scything Here

Sorry, ladies and gents—there’s no sexy scything in this book, unless you like your sexy with a side of spleen, which…no, no, I do not. I love the look of this cover art; it’s sort of like Jane’s official Attendant portrait, something she could give out, like a business card, or that you’d trade with someone for, like a baseball card. The light hitting the model’s face juuust right, with that “Imma scythe you” expression… *kisses fingers* Perfect.

The Deal:

Two days after Jane is born the dead begin to rise on the battlefields of the Civil War. The two sides come to an uneasy agreement because, well, duh, there are more pressing concerns, like their former war buddies wanting to snack on their thigh bones. Because the US government has always been comprised of the most balanced and well-adjusted people, they find an easy solution to the issue and THE END. Hahaha, just kidding. The brilliant ideas they come up with are massive walls around their cities (*cough*) and creating finishing schools for former young slaves and Native American children so they can learn to fight the Shamblers and be Attendants to defenseless, rich, white women.

Jane is at one of the most prestigious finishing schools, Miss Preston’s, right outside Baltimore. She’s close to finishing her training and getting back to her mama and her plantation. Oh yeah—Jane’s mom is actually a white woman, who all the gossips say has a penchant for “the help”. She disagreed with Jane’s decision to go to Miss Preston’s and now it’s been more than a year since her last letter, leaving Jane to fear the worst. Then Jane and her most prim and proper, brown-nosing enemy, Katherine, catch the Mayor’s eye for their fighting skills during a science lecture gone wrong…and once again, the Shamblers have changed the entire course of her life as she knew it.

BFF Charm: Platinum

BFF platinum charm

You know how we like to put together an Ocean’s 11 of our favorite YA characters during our Between Two Lockers series? I feel like Jane has earned a pretty cushy spot on my list. She’s someone who knows her faults but isn’t always that concerned with feeling bad about them. She’s a liar and a loud-mouth, and she knows she’ll do the impetuous thing…but she just can’t help herself (see: Red Jack). But Jane’s also super smart; she’s a voracious reader and has a bit of a flair for acting, knowing precisely when to “live down to people’s expectations” to manipulate a situation to her favor. She’s also a legit badass, knowing about a bajillion ways to kill a shambler, and feels a duty to protect the helpless.

Jane’s got a bit of sass to her, which I personally dig, and her growth in relation to Katherine was one of my favorite parts of the novel. Despite being a pretty cool chick to start with, Jane definitely has room to learn from her mistakes. Even though I don’t have any practical murdering skills, I’d love to tag along with their little group…but let’s keep the shamblers as far away as possible, please and thank you.

Swoonworthy Scale: 3

Jane has a bit of a past with the charming rascal Red Jack, but after he broke her heart she swore she’d never let him get the best of her again. Later on, she forms an intellectual (and possibly more emotional one day) connection with [redacted], though the stakes are much too high and the conditions much too rough for there to be any sweet moments of true swoon. I’ve some hopes for the future, but, really, romantic love isn’t what this book is about.

Talky Talk: Livin’ Up To The Hype

It’s so dangerous to give in to the hype machine. We’re all guilty of it in one form or another, and sometimes I get quite contrary and ignore a “big” book because it’s been so done (settle down, inner hipster). People have been talking about Dread Nation for a while, but my first real taste of it came in the form of a short story that’s set in the same world, about 8-10 years before this book starts. It was one of my favorite from the anthology and I immediately knew I needed to read more of this Reconstruction era dystopia.

Ireland didn’t disappoint. From the get-go, Jane has such a strong narrative presence, and it’s her spunk that carries the plot along at a fast but manageable pace. Like an onion, this book had so many layers. Ireland wove in key historical moments with her own alternate history (Sherman’s March to the Sea was to burn a path through the shambler horde) and a little bit of steampunk to make it fantastical but also utterly possible. There were moments of political strife and social commentary that deftly and cleverly made allusions to today’s current climate in the US without beating you over the head with it. I breezed through the book in a night—why, yes, I did stay up until three a.m. to read it, how did you know? Oh, right, because I do this all the time—but I almost feel like I need to go back and read it again with a more discerning eye to catch the things that I most definitely went through too quickly in my hurry to know what happened.

Bonus Factor: Shamblers

A man stands in front of a double door that is spray painted with the words "Don't enter. Dead inside."

There are all sorts of names for the undead—walkers, living dead, zombies, ghouls. To shamble means “to move with a slow, shuffling, awkward gait” and I love that Ireland invented a word for zombies that seems fitting for the time period, like Custer was looking out at the battlefield and went, “Damn, look at them all, just shambling along!” and bam, a phrase was coined.

Bonus Factor: Unexpected Twists

A yellow road sign that says "plot twist ahead"

Perhaps even mentioning a twist is coming ruins the suspense? I think enough reviews have clued people in that there’s more to the story than what the jacket cover tells you. I won’t tell you where things end up, but I was pleasantly surprised with the second half of the story and where the series will head next.

Bonus Factor: Supporting Players

Group of characters from the Office cheering and laughing while gathered around a computer

I’ve spouted a lot of praise of Jane, but truly many of the characters in Dread Nation caught my attention. The unfurling of Katherine’s backstory, the glimpses of Jane’s mother and backstory through the letters at the start of each chapter, even Red Jack and his soft spot for his sister—they all lent a depth to the material and got you invested in a hopeful outcome…or as hopeful as it can get in a post-apocalyptic world where almost all the horses have been eaten by zombies and there’s nary a Wal-Mart in sight to barricade yourself within.

Factor: Controversial Author

A man yells at his phone

In this day and age of being “always connected”, we now know way more about our favorite authors than ever before. It is still a foreign concept to my inner child—who often thought about writing a fan letter on actual paper and sending it to the author’s publisher in NY, NY (so glamorous!) but was, in actuality, way too lazy to do it—to just @ your faves and get an actual response. Having such easy access to the (wo)men behind the curtain can raise some tough questions on how to separate the art from its creator, and if you even can.

Last year there was some Twitter-turned-newsworthy controversy when Justina Ireland called out what she felt was a racist and damaging YA novel that hadn’t yet been published. It was a messy situation that I don’t think had any clear winner, and it brought up a lot of discussion about the toxic nature of YA online. I honestly did not connect that situation to this book’s author until I read Vulture’s profile of Ireland from last week. I wonder, if I had remembered this before, if it would have affected any aspect of my enjoyment or expectations for this novel. I honestly don’t know. But if you are on the fence about picking up Dread Nation because of any behind the scenes issues you’ve heard of, I will say that I think the writing is strong enough to stand on its own.

Anti-Bonus Factor: Racism

cropped view of woman holding carton placard with stop racism sign on red background

Kudos to Ireland for writing a truly creepy set of villains. Every time the [redacted] spoke, my skin crawled. It was honestly difficult to have to sit and read through his diatribes of racist bullshit, so you can imagine how uncomfortable the characters feel having to be there.

Relationship Status: By Your Side

I’ll admit it, Book: I need your protection. I am wholly unqualified to be running around a shambler-ridden world by myself, but I hope that I can bring something else to a symbiotic partnership, like entertaining stories and decent cooking skills. Let’s venture forth to search for some kind of safety as equal partners. I’ll keep your scythes well-oiled and you can teach me how to wield a sword, just like all good, post-apocalyptic BFFs should.

FTC Full Disclosure: I received my free review copy from Balzer + Bray. This review was originally posted on Kirkus Reviews in exchange for monetary compensation, which did not affect or influence my opinions. Dread Nation is available now.

Stephanie (she/her) is an avid reader who moonlights at a college and calls Orlando home. Stephanie loves watching television, reading DIY blogs, planning awesome parties, Halloween decorating, and playing live-action escape games.