Stay Alive: A Review of Dread Nation by Justina Ireland
Updated: May 4
I said I couldn’t wait to read this book. I devoured this book roughly two weeks ago at this point, it was everything I hoped it would be, and now it is time for its review!
Hello, and welcome to Reading Has Ruined My Life. If this is the first review you’re reading here, hi, my name’s Hannah. I don’t introduce myself in my posts. I should probably do that more often, but I don’t. I should also plug the blog’s Twitter more often too. So you should go follow Reading Has Ruined My Life, @RHRMLBlog, on Twitter so you can stay up to date on all things books and Reading Has Ruined My Life.
This week, I bring you another YA horror review. Listen, I have my niche, we all do, and YA horror is slowly becoming mine.
Please welcome to the stage: Dread Nation by Justina Ireland!
Just a few weeks ago, in a little post where I gave a small look into my TBR Pile, I said that I was most looking forward to reading Dread Nation out of all the other books in my TBR Pile. It did not disappoint! Seriously, it was so good!
So let’s crack into it! As always, there is a spoiler alert in order.
Published in 2018, Dread Nation follows Jane McKeene who is fighting for her life every single day. Jane is a black teen living in post-Civil War America. But this is not post-Civil War America we all know from public high school history class. Nay, nay. You see, during the Battle of Gettysburg, the dead began to rise and turn against the men they once fought with. That’s right folks, we have a zombie apocalypse on our hands.
Now, at 17, Jane is in her final year at Miss Preston’s School of Combat for Negro Girls in Baltimore, Maryland. At this academy, she is studying various forms of combat to fight the zombies that plague the nation in order to become an Attendant; which is basically a rich, white lady’s personal bodyguard. Out of all the jobs that deal with fighting the undead, being an Attendant is the best as there is some level of prestige that comes with the role. It’s far better than being in a zombie patrol squad where you make little to no money.
Too bad Jane will never get her diploma as she ends up locked on a train headed to the wild west with the girl she considers to be her worst enemy. Naturally things go from worse to worser as the town Jane ends up in is filled with racism, seedy backroom dealings, zombies, and a mystery involving government officials all the way back home in Maryland.
Honestly, the back cover synopsis promised me a lot, and I got a lot more than I ever anticipated. There is so much good shit in this book!
Obviously, we have Jane who is a badass, active female lead who I love. She is an all around amazing character. Throughout every problem that arises, she remains level headed. She thinks fast, keeps cool, and still manages to keep her sense of humor even in the darkest of times. Please add her name to the lists of best badass heroines in dystopian literature because she deserves to be on them.
Ireland includes a great foil for Jane as well. Seriously, Katherine, Jane’s enemy turned friend, should also be included on lists of badass heroines in dystopian literature too. She deserves it! What I love about Katherine is not only does she help Jane grow as a person and a fighter, but that she is equally as intelligent and physically strong as Jane. Unlike Jane though, Katherine is a hyperfeminine character. She loves reading about the latest fashions and hair styles, and wishes she had the money to dress like a high society lady. She’s intrigued by high society in general. Jane is the more traditional tomboy type female lead one sees in dystopian literature while characters like Katherine are few and far between.
If you think about it, most heroines in these types of books shun fashion and beauty. Katniss Everdeen for example couldn’t give a flying fuck about beauty. And if you do see a hyperfeminine character, she tends to be presented as either an idiot or a villain; Natalie Luca and Celeste Newsome from The Elite are good examples respectively.
Katherine may not be the main character, but her inclusion is so important. She proves that women can like fashion and beauty and still fight an army of the undead. There need to be more hyperfeminine characters like Katherine in dystopian and post-apocalyptic literature. It’s ok to like pretty dresses and sparkly jewelry! You can still like traditional feminine things and be a badass! The two things aren’t mutually exclusive, and more writers should include characters like Katharine for that reason. Seriously, if Ireland ever wants to write a companion piece to Dread Nation from Katherine’s perspective, I will be first in line to buy it.
The more I think about it, is Katherine my favorite character? Am I a Katherine stan? Probably. Actually, yes, who am I kidding by saying “probably.” Do I love Jane any less though? No, absolutely not. She’s still a great character with an interesting story to read about.
On that note, I should probably talk about the other main character in this story: The Shamblers AKA the zombies.
Ireland’s zombies operate by traditional zombie rules. Upon death, a corpse will rise from the grave and begin walking again. The corpse feels the need to feed so it will attack the nearest living person. After being used as food, the victim will rise again and the cycle continues. You know the drill, if a person gets bit, they become a zombie. After nearly two decades of dealing with the undead though, the living has learned that to properly kill a zombie one must decapitate it or take it down with a headshot. The population has also taken to burning their dead and every zombie they kill to prevent any more zombies from rising or re-rising.
Everything is pretty standard when it comes to the zombies. There is one detail that Ireland included that I really like and found different from all the other zombie literature though. This is probably a good time to mention that I am not a big connoisseur of zombie media; I’m not a fan of zombies, out of all supernatural creatures they creep me out the most so I don’t read about them often.
As I’ve said many times before, I prefer a traditional haunted house story with ghosts and specters. Zombies just ain’t my cup of tea so I truly don’t know if the following is actually different and unique to Ireland’s Dread Nation or if this is a detail that has gained popularity in recent years. Either way, I still really liked the following detail.
Ireland mentions that the longer a zombie has risen, the slower they get. A zombie will continue to decay like a normal corpse, and will become slower and slower overtime. The fresher the zombie, the bigger the threat. There are multiple times throughout Dread Nation where Jane will go after the newer zombies first because they move faster and are a bigger threat to her survival. Fighting older zombies are like a walk in the park for skilled fighters like Jane and Katherine.
I really love this detail. It’s a great way to show how knowledgeable some characters are or are not regarding zombies. It also adds additional layers of fear to the zombies. If one of our characters is fighting a handful of older zombies, anxiety about them surviving is at a minimum. Should they be fighting just one or two fresh zombies, the anxiety levels for me as a reader and the characters actually doing the fighting have skyrocketed.
My only issue with the zombies, and really my only qualm with this book as a whole, is just how long it takes someone to turn into a zombie. It’s unclear if a zombie bite turns someone instantaneously or if it takes upwards of 24-hours.
At the beginning of this book, a few of the characters attend a lecture regarding zombies. The man speaking, a self-proclaimed zombie specialist, claims he has created a vaccine to prevent the public from turning into zombies.
The unfortunate soul who was given this vaccine ends up becoming a zombie. Now listen, our protagonist knows this vaccine will not work. She also implies that zombie bite victims can turn quickly, and that’s exactly what happens.
Later in the story though, Jane is fighting a zombie hoard. This is a full on battle that the majority of the town is involved in. There are obviously casualties on our hero’s side. But my issue is: are these town people killed by zombies and then re-killed by their former neighbors? Or were these people killed by zombies and then didn’t reanimate during the battle?
I find this part unclear. The most likely scenario is the first one, and I’m grasping at straws for some issue to have with Dread Nation. This battle did take place in the dead of night after all, and was probably written to be slightly confusing because of that. Every head was removed from its body, and all the bodies were burned the next day anyhow. So in theory, this issue I bring up doesn’t even matter because none of these corpses will be able to rise ever again. I am just slightly confused and it’s likely because of my own stupidity. I’m most likely making a mountain out of a molehill for no reason. I just want to know if the townspeople did indeed turn into zombies and rise again or if they stayed dead for the rest of the battle! Hello, Justina Ireland, can you please answer my stupid question? It would mean a lot to me. Please tell me exactly how long it takes for someone to turn into a zombie in Dread Nation.
Seriously though, this issue that’s probably not an issue is my only issue with this book. By the way, take a shot every time I write “issue.”
There are still a lot of unanswered questions at the end of this book, but that’s because this is a duology. I didn’t know that when I found this book online, I thought it was a stand alone novel. Now I have to wait for its sequel, Deathless Divide, to arrive at my doorstep.
I’m very glad that I’m reading this series now in the year 2021 and not all the way back in 2018. I don’t think I could have waited for its sequel to have been published. I have so many unanswered questions that I need answers for right now.
For example: how did the zombie plague start? Is it because of a bacteria or virus like Jane believes? Or was it something else entirely? Will Jane ever reunite with her mom? Will Jane and Katherine go from enemies to lovers? Do the girls get the chance to murder their enemies? Who’s to say.
As soon as I get Dread Nation’s sequel in, I will be writing that review. Fingers crossed it arrives sooner rather than later.
On that note, I bid you all adieu! Have a marvelous rest of your week. I look forward to seeing you all again next Wednesday with a post that even I don’t know will be about. Stay safe, wear a mask, wash those hands, and read some good books for me.