Dread Nation is set in a world where the dead began to rise during the American Civil War, leading to the nation being changed forever - and to laws like the Native and Negro Education Act forcing certain children to go to combat schools to learn to put down the dead. Central character Jane McKeene, a star student - even if she's not a popular one with some of the teachers - is ready to finish her education there and return to her Kentucky home. But then she gets caught in a conspiracy and finds there may be worse things to deal with than the shamblers she's trained to defeat...
I recently reread this one in preparation for the sequel Deathless Divide and it's still one of my all-time favourite alternate history novels. The world is brought brilliantly to life by the talented Justina Ireland, the pacing is phenomenal and the central pairing - Jane and her rival-turned-reluctant ally, fellow pupil Katherine are a stunning duo, with a brilliant relationship that develops superbly over the course of the book. (Also great representation, Katherine is one of the few aro-ace characters I've seen in genre YA while Jane is a bisexual with a roving eye, although the book is light on anything more than flirtation for romance - there's far too many shamblers to try and put down, even when Jane's old flame Red Jack is around!)
It's a gripping plot with lots of thrilling action, and twists and turns that definitely kept me guessing, and a host of characters who Jane struggles to know whether or not to trust. It's also an incisive look at racism and the way that the people in charge are perfectly happy to use people they see as inferior to try and deal with the problem of the shamblers, although there are other white people who prove to be allies for Jane and Katherine. We also see the different experiences of Jane, who's dark skinned enough that her race is clear to all, and Katherine, who can pass for white and who Jane encourages to do so.
An exciting read which builds to a stunning and satisfying climax, this is a massive recommendation from me.
(Note for review of book 2 - I've tried to avoid spoilers as far as possible, but obviously I've had to give away a couple of things - like who's left alive!)
Jane, Katherine, Red Jack and his sister are on a journey from early on in this book, with Jane trying to find her mother. But the shamblers are coming in ever-stronger groups, and some of them are behaving rather differently, while there are still human monsters who are just as much of a concern for our two heroines as the creatures they're so adept at fighting are.
I love that we got to read both POVs here and Katherine, like Jane, has a distinctive and wonderful voice. This shares lots with the first book - superb pacing, a great look at racism, and some exciting action scenes. However it also adds in more romance and even bigger twists, with a couple of scenes leaving my heart in my mouth. What's perhaps the best thing about the book, though, is the further development of the friendship between Katherine and Jane, which goes from strength to strength - Katherine is loyal to Jane but will call her out when she thinks she needs it, to the point of physically fighting her because she knows that Jane needs the adrenaline rush this will provide. They are a truly sensational team. There are also some fantastic new characters, in addition to several favourites from the first one returning. The villain here is a really memorable one, in particular.
As a book, this is superb. As a duology, it's a strong contender for one of my favourite ever speculative series. The ending we get is a fantastic one, but it leaves open the potential for further adventures in this world in the future. Will we get them? I'm not sure, but I really hope we do!