Dread Nation by Justina Ireland
Jane McKeene was born two days before the dead began to walk the battlefields of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania—derailing the War Between the States and changing the nation forever.
In this new America, safety for all depends on the work of a few, and laws like the Native and Negro Education Act require certain children attend combat schools to learn to put down the dead.
But there are also opportunities—and Jane is studying to become an Attendant, trained in both weaponry and etiquette to protect the well-to-do. It's a chance for a better life for Negro girls like Jane. After all, not even being the daughter of a wealthy white Southern woman could save her from society’s expectations.
But that’s not a life Jane wants. Almost finished with her education at Miss Preston's School of Combat in Baltimore, Jane is set on returning to her Kentucky home and doesn’t pay much mind to the politics of the eastern cities, with their talk of returning America to the glory of its days before the dead rose.
But when families around Baltimore County begin to go missing, Jane is caught in the middle of a conspiracy, one that finds her in a desperate fight for her life against some powerful enemies.
And the restless dead, it would seem, are the least of her problems
No spoilers (promise)
As a general rule of thumb, I tend to avoid any and all historical fiction for a variety of reasons. One is the same reason I avoid contemporary fiction or anything else that isn't fantasy or sci-fi: it doesn't interest me. I won't say those stories are boring (they're not, and every now and then I find one that's really good even without supernatural elements), but it doesn't spark my interest the way a fantasy or horror story does.
The other reason I avoid historical fiction is because, as someone who has a bachelor's in history and continues to study it, I usually find half a dozen major problems with the historical setting within the first few chapters. The most common crime is that the time period is very idealized. We're seeing it through the thick lens of nostalgia (specifically, white and/or male nostalgia) rather than how it really was. Basically, the writer just doesn't do their research, which is extremely important even if you're doing an alternative history.
Justina Ireland side-steps these problems very neatly. Firstly she brings zombies into the equation, which is a surefire way to get my attention because I love zombie stories. It's rare that a story cannot be improved by adding a bit of the undead into the mix. Secondly, she definitely did her research on the Reconstruction Era. For those who are drawing a blank on what that is, the Reconstruction Era is that bit of time right after the Civil War when the U.S. tried to piece itself back together, fix up the destroyed South, end the slavery thing, and failed horribly on all accounts. Historians disagree on when, exactly, the Reconstruction Era ended--if indeed it's ended at all--and most agree that it could have gone a lot better, especially for the newly freed slaves, many of whom were forced to become indentured servants employed and abused by the very whites who owned them as property a few years ago.
Ireland takes that time period, adds a healthy dose of zombies, and goes to town. While it's definitely a YA novel--with the teenage protagonist, lightning-fast speed, critical view of authority and government--it's a story that readers of almost any age can enjoy and learn from. She's also got the language down perfectly. Several historical fiction authors have their characters and narrator talk either too contemporary or too blandly. Jane McKeene--who is both the main character and the narrator--talks exactly the way someone raised in 1870 Kentucky and educated in 1880 Maryland would talk.
Jane herself is an awesome character. She's a badass fighter, notorious troublemaker, and is one of those stupidly brave people who you respect for Doing The Thing, but at the same time you kind of want to strangle her because you're going to get yourself killed, you idiot! Kind of like Jon Snow, but more interesting.
Playing her foil and partner is Kate, her fellow classmate who is Jane's opposite in every way. Well, not every way, seeing as Kate isn't a horrible racist with dangerous delusions on how a society should overcome the zombies. That position goes to the villain, who we actually don't meet until halfway through the book. I won't go into detail because spoilers, but I will say that he's the perfectly crafted villain, in that I want to beat him over the head several times with a dictionary. He's the guy who just has to die. And I say that as an anti-death penalty advocate and pacifist.
The other characters are well-written, too: enemies, allies, the crush and ex-boyfriend who both cause an absolute minimum of tension, thank God. Actually, there's not much of a romantic subplot here, for which I'm glad. The ex--named Red Jack--is someone that Jane sees only as a mistake, refuses to get back together with despite his repeated advances, and while she still has some lingering feelings for him and gets jealous whenever someone else gives him goo-goo eyes, she ruthlessly squashes them down to concentrate on the task at hand. That is an attitude sorely lacking in many YA protagonists that I deeply appreciate, especially in a zombie story, where the most common mistake an author makes is focusing on the petty drama rather than the very real threat of imminent doom.
(We also find out about three-quarters of the way through the book that Jane is bisexual, or at least fluid and flexible enough to have made out with a pretty girl. Yay, diverse characters!)
My only complaint about this book is that there are a couple of loose ends, namely the fate of one of Jane's friends who goes missing. She spends a good amount of energy looking for him before she's forced to leave, so it's not like Ireland forgot he existed. She just refuses to tell us where he went off to, which is frustrating. Though I think she plans on bringing him back if she ever publishes a sequel, which is a distinct possibility. Watch me not complain about that.
So, yeah. Welcome to the Favorites page, Dread Nation! Please don't eat my brains.
Black characters--or I should say, well-written, non-stereotypical black characters--can be hard to come by in sci-fi and fantasy. Chances are, if the book is written by a white person, almost all of the characters are white, and those that aren’t are minor and two-dimensional. Even the best authors are guilty of this. Does anyone recall seeing any black wizards in Hogwarts?
For those of us well-intentioned white SFF authors, we see this and want to help. But we don’t want to come across as racist by badly writing a black character, so the question is: how do you write black characters?
The good news: it’s pretty easy.
Yes, this is very similar to how you write women characters. Remember: it’s not the person themselves who are different because of something as superficial as skin tone. It’s how other people react to that person’s appearance. That is what shapes the character.
Obviously if you’re writing a historical piece, do your research. Adhere to the rules of slavery, segregation, and whatever other horribly racist mandate we had going on at the time.
And no matter what genre you’re writing, even high fantasy or super futuristic sci-fi where you can create all of society’s rules, governing race, and ethnicity, there are some stereotypes you want to avoid.
The first Dragons, Zombies and Aliens blog was started in 2015. Somewhere between college coursework, paying rent with door-to-door sales, and keeping up with my sorority sisters, I wrote reviews, rants and commentaries on books, TV shows, and movies. Now, this blog has moved, improved, and the sky's the limit!