by Justina Ireland
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.
So, the American Civil War and zombies, anyone?
I love my historical fiction but I very rarely read historical fiction centred around American history, so I don’t know what it says about me that the first novel I’ve read about the American Civil War is a YA alternate history featuring flesh-eating zombies. And I’m not sorry.
In this version of 19th century America, the dead began to rise from the battlefields of the American Civil War, bringing the conflict to an untimely, and unresolved, end. Now children from minority backgrounds, particularly black and First Nations children, are taken from their homes and sent to schools where they’re trained to fight zombies so they can be hired as protectors for their white ‘betters’.
Jane McKeene is one such student, and she’s keen to graduate from Miss Preston’s School of Combat so she can return home to her mother, who she hasn’t heard from in some time, and protect her family as the dead continue to ravage America. Jane has a knack for getting into trouble, however, and when she stumbles across a conspiracy her life takes a turn that makes returning home far more difficult.
I can say without a shadow of a doubt that Jane McKeene has earned herself a place as one of my favourite YA heroines. Her narrative voice is so strong from the very first page, it’s what really drew me in and pulled me through this novel; she reminded me a lot of Saba from Blood Red Road, another of my favourite YA novels, so I suppose it’s no surprise that I adored her as much as I did.
Jane is smart and cunning and good at what she does, but she’s not without her flaws and it’s those flaws that make her an even better character. While the novel itself isn’t a new favourite, though I did enjoy it a lot, I do feel bereft knowing that I don’t know how long I have to wait for more of Jane.
One of the things I loved most about this novel was that there was no way I could have guessed how it was going to end when I compare its ending with its beginning. Justina Ireland took the plot in a direction I wasn’t expecting and I loved it, and I also loved that while this book is the first in a series (something I was a little wary of at first, but am now thrilled that I have more Jane to look forward to) this story is a self-contained story that could be read as a standalone if you read it and had no desire to read anymore. I wish more series had self-contained books like this!
Much like the plot, I also enjoyed how Jane’s relationships developed so organically over the course of the novel, particularly with her fellow student, Katherine. Neither Katherine nor Jane like each other very much, and I must admit I found Katherine a little annoying at first myself, but the situation they fall into forces them to work together and the friendship that develops between them as a result is one of the best YA friendships I’ve come across in a while.
And just in case the plot and character development weren’t enough of a treat, Ireland’s world-building was so much fun. Granted my knowledge of American history is appalling, so any American history aficionados out there might find it harder to suspend their disbelief than I did, but I loved how Ireland incorporated the undead into 19th century American history and how the country has reacted to its new, rotting inhabitants. In fact, for an alternate history novel, there was so much in this story regarding who we’re willing to sacrifice for the comfort of the most privileged that made this such a current, political read.
It wasn’t quite a five star read for me because I don’t think the first quarter of the novel was quite as seamless as the rest of it, but I loved this book a lot, I loved Jane a lot and I’d love to see them both getting a little more love!