Literally smack bang in the middle of its UK launch date, it was announced that Dread Nation (released earlier in the US) was a Hugo finalist. Ok, yeah, so I was only a few pages in (page 7) when I felt the need to share my thoughts instantly online. These were my initial reactions;
‘Holy hell, what an intro. Scene set, atmosphere set, historical period, characters – everything established then – boom!’The punchline? Two days after our main character Jane – a person of colour – is born, “the dead rose up and started to walk on a battlefield in a small town in Pennsylvania called Gettysburg.”As I said. Boom!
As a young adult, many years later, following the War Against the Dead, Jane is forced to leave her home and train at Miss Preston’s School of Combat. Once children from black or mixed race parents reach twelve, they are taken away by soldiers to train as ‘Attendants’ or other equally enslaved roles. Attendants are the equivalent of a lady’s maid, but with with weapons to fight and protect their charge; from the dead and other threats to their innocence. Jane has been at Miss Preston’s school for three years, when she gains the attention of the mayor, along with her frenemy Kate, who could easily be ‘passing’ as white.
On pg 72 we’re about to see a helluva show as a reader, in which the repulsive figure of Professor Ghering uses a black character, Othello, to demonstrate that “Negro and Native Re-education Act is entirely unnecessary.” This is the act which puts people of colour into indentured slavery to fight the dead. His reasoning; people of colour have a higher immunity than white people. (WTF!) I won’t give in to the whys and wherefores, as its likely to spoil a shocking moment in the book. Suffice to say, the ‘professor’ reckons that it’s a waste of time to educate non-white living creatures. This chapter is meant to shock, and it does so. But it also shows inherent racism in the period in which the novel is set, and sadly, evident in some of today’s society. It also shows the reader how clever, instinctive and courageous, Jane and the other black girls at the school are.
I don’t want to say much about the plot, as there is so much that happens in this book, in terms of fights, relationships, character development and Jane’s growth as a woman and warrior. So, suffice to say, the dead have risen in post civil war America and the proverbial hits the fan.
With its many award nominations for this book; it’s clear they are deserved. I’ll finish off this review with some personal context. I’m a white, disabled woman. I don’t normally say this, but it’s important you understand that I, and many other readers out there, will never really get what it’s like to benefit from white privilege. And yes, it is real. This book, in some way, shows all readers the struggle that people of colour have endured for centuries, and still continue to experience. This is why this book is so vital. However, it’s also important to know, that it’s a bloody fantastic book, entertaining, at times shocking, dark and also full of humour, with a dash of romance. This book, I guarantee, will be studied widely in schools – as important books should be. It will be there with ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ by Harper Lee (with the knowledge and context we held of it before the release of its follow up) and Toni Morrison’s ‘Beloved’. And the poetry of Maya Angelou.
Like ‘I Know why the Caged Bird Sings’, it is in a league of its own, and what it has to say, is powerful and significant. This book will live on for centuries.
In libraries, in schools, in universities, in hearts, in homes.