by Justina Ireland
“See, the problem in this world ain’t sinners, or even the dead. It is men who will step on anyone who stands in the way of their pursuit of power. Luckily there will always be people like me to stop them.”
Published April 3, 2018 by Balzer + Bray
Genre: YA alternate history
Date finished: Sept 2, 2018
Jane McKeene was born two days before the dead began to walk the battlefields of Gettysburg and Chancellorsville—derailing the War Between the States and changing America forever. In this new nation, safety for all depends on the work of a few, and laws like the Native and Negro Reeducation 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.
My thoughts (spoiler free)
This book was even better than I could have hoped for.
I mean, post-Civil War era zombie-fighting girls does kind of sound right up my alley, but still, I had no idea what a blast this book would be.
Starting out, can I just say what a creative and unique concept this is? I have no idea how Justina Ireland came up with this idea and I’m amazed that she pulled it off so flawlessly. It’s this kind of originality that makes a book truly stand out.
Even though I started this book during my (very stressful) first week of the semester, I did not want to put it down at all, and even when I was doing other things that I was supposed to be doing, at least a portion of my mind was still in this book. It stuck with me from start to finish, and I’m still thinking about it over a week later and I want to tell everyone to go read it. So, yeah, go do that.
The star of this story is Jane McKeene, a young mixed race woman training to become an Attendant and fight off “shamblers” for her wealthy employers, even as she misses her faraway home and wonders why her white mother won’t respond to any of her letters. I loved having Jane for a narrator – basically everything she did made me figuratively jump out of my seat and cheer. Not only was she clever and formidable with a weapon, but she took no nonsense from the people around her and tried to make the best of whatever horrible situation she was in. Though she could be a bit hotheaded and judgmental of others, I feel like she learned and grew so much over the course of the novel. Plus, she was the queen of snark. Seriously, Jane is one of my new favorite fictional female leads. I adore her.
Some other major characters that come into play Jackson, or “Red Jack,” Jane’s, ahem, acquaintance who’s never up to any good. As well as Katherine, one of Jane’s least favorite girls at Miss Preston’s School, who’s always been treated differently than the other girls because she can pass as white.
I really appreciated the fact that, although we never actually meet Jane’s mother in the course of the story, we get a strong sense of who she is, as well as Jane’s relationship and feelings toward her, simply through Jane’s memories of her. That’s a difficult way to portray a character, especially one with such a complicated relationship with the narrator, yet it’s done so well in this book.
For most of this story, I hadn’t the faintest clue what was going to happen next. This plot was in no way formulaic or predictable and I was kept guessing the entire time. During the action scenes (of which there were plenty!) I was right on the edge of my seat because I had the sense that anything could happen and everything could change at a moment’s notice. And now I really, really need the next book to come out soon because this story is perfect and I want more of it.
One of my biggest pet peeves in books that take place in different time periods is when characters talk like they’re from the 21st century. And this book avoided that perfectly. Jane and the other characters talked exactly how I would imagine people in the American South during the late 1800s would talk, while still feeling accessible and entertaining and even funny to today’s audience. It seemed authentic and really helped to transport me into that setting. Jane’s voice, both in her narration and her dialogue, was so distinct and fun to read.
While this was an incredibly fun book about girls killing zombies, it was also a book about race in the 1880s, and it did not shy away from those aspects. We get a very strong sense of what it was like to be a woman of color in that time period (which also had some things to say about being a woman of color in today’s world). Jane’s powerlessness because of her race and gender was complicated by the fact that she’s been trained to fight and defend herself, yet even that is used to take power away from her because she’s not given a choice in the matter. The way that the world is built is fascinating and so well done.
So basically, I loved every second of this book. If you haven’t gotten around to picking it up, I highly recommend that you rectify that as soon as possible, because you’re missing out. Jane’s story is heart-poundingly exhilarating and nonstop entertaining, and I’m so happy that it’s not over yet. The only downside is that I have to wait so long for the next book.
“I ain’t yet seen the man who can do that.”
“Maybe that’s your problem. You been waiting for a man.”