Dread Nation by Justina Ireland

Title: Dread Nation
Author: Justina Ireland
Series: Dread Nation, #1
Pages: 464
Publisher: Blazer + Bray
Release Date: April 3rd 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.”

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“The trick is not to think of them as regular folks. When you do that, your emotions get all tangled up. You start to wonder whether it’s right or wrong and what kind of person that makes you for taking their life, whatever kind of existence it may be. Your brain starts doubting, and those second thoughts can get you killed.”

Justina Ireland’s Dread Nation reimagines the end of the Civil War not with the surrender of the Confederate Army, but with the rising of the dead. Facing its greatest threat, the government passes the Native and Negro Reedcation Act, forcing Native and black children into schools where they train to fight the undead. Jane has grown up in a world where shamblers are a constant threat. As a student at Miss Preston’s School of Combat, she has developed the necessary skills to survive a fight with a shambler. While she should be hoping to be hired as an Attendent for a rich, white family, all she really wants is to return home to her mother whom she hasn’t seen in years. When Jane reluctantly lends a hand to an old friend in finding his sister, she stumbles upon a scheme that will take her even farther from home, to a place where those in charge will do anything to keep their secrets hidden.

Ireland manages to be both creative and realistic in her world-building. Though shamblers have reshaped the country, the fundamentals of white supremacy still ring true. In towns like Baltimore, affluent families enjoy a degree of safety not afforded to others. They would rather pretend that the shambler threat exists elsewhere and that their city couldn’t possibly be overrun. Though slavery has been abolished, it is still black bodies being put on the front lines, valued less for their ability to fight the undead and more for their expendability. While some white folks are willing to move forward and embrace an age where black and white people could work together, there are factions that still believe certain races are inherently superior to others. When you combine this with religious fervor and unchecked power, the results are devastating.

I’d be hard-pressed to decide whether Ireland’s writing shines brightest in her world-building or her creation of a character that feels as real as the paper she’s printed on. Jane’s narration is one of the most genuine that I’ve come across. The more I read, the more I gained an appreciation for the character and Ireland’s ability to make every thought and piece of a dialogue feel both deliberate and authentic. I loved that Jane manages to be delightful both in her negative and positive attributes. Ireland never side-steps the protagonist’s flaws, but rather let’s her be petty and reckless in the moments that make sense for her character. This means Jane feels more real and readers get an honest glimpse at who she is rather than what the author just wants you to see.

There are several minor character who I grew to appreciate. Jane’s schoolmate Katherine starts off as a foil to Jane, but by the end of the novel there is an earned respect and camaraderie between the two. I did want to see more of Jackson, Jane’s once-upon-a-time romantic interest. It’s hard not to see how he might have charmed her and I’m greedily curious to know more about their lawless escapades. Like Jane, I am also very curious about Mr. Gideon, a bright young inventor who also understand what it means to play the long game against a more powerful opponent. 

Ireland’s Dead Nation is like nothing I’ve ever read. It takes a tired zombie trope and gives it a fresh new look. It’s insightful and provocative as it juxtaposes a population who longs for the glory days of a prosperous America with one that has only been used as stepladder for the other’s triumphs.

5/5

★★★★★

Blood For Blood by Ryan Graudin

blood-for-blood-by-ryan-graudinTitle: Blood For Blood
Author: Ryan Graudin
Series: Wolf By Wolf, #2
Pages: 481
Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Release Date: November 1st 2016

      “For the resistance in 1950s Germany, the war may be over, but the fight has just begun.
      Death camp survivor Yael, who has the power to skinshift, is on the run: the world has just seen her shoot and kill Hitler. But the truth of what happened is far more complicated, and its consequences are deadly. Yael and her unlikely comrades dive into enemy territory to try to turn the tide against the New Order, and there is no alternative but to see their mission through to the end, whatever the cost.
      But dark secrets reveal dark truths, and one question hangs over them all: how far can you go for the ones you love?”

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“Yael’s sidestep wasn’t swift enough; the tip of the bayonet dragged across her jacket, slicing all leather, no skin. Her second hit was more successful. Yael felt her bones connect with flesh, crack into cartilage.”

Ryan Graudin’s Wolf By Wolf is one of the best books I’ve read this year. Yael’s story was heartbreaking and moving, but was infused with such hope that it was hard to put down. In Blood For Blood, the conclusion to Graudin’s alternate history duology, Yael seeks to finish what she started after the assassination attempt on Hitler is thwarted by the same people who turned her into a skinshifter. Not everyone has realized that Yael did not kill the real Hitler, but her actions have set off a series of events, meant to signal a revolution. Across Europe, resistance fighters are rising up, willing to give their lives if it means crushing the Nazi regime for good, not knowing that the vile dictator still lives. As members of the resistances fight for their right to live, Yael and the people she’s met along the way are faces with difficult choices, between doing what is easy and being brave enough to do what’s right.

Yael is one of my favorite literary characters. Her resilience in the face of injustice and hatred is awe-inspiring, and in this second installment, she continues to impress me with her strength. In many ways Yael’s story comes full circle in this one. She’s struggled with identity issues since she was a child when the experiments done on her stripped her of who she was. The accusation of “monster” has been hanging over her ever since her own mother muttered the word. Yael has spent so much time being other people in order to aid the resistance, but in Blood For Blood, Yael’s most important role is being herself. She must comes to grips with who she is and what she’s done, and an important person from her past helps her to reconcile these feelings.

Graudin weaves many of the characters’ pasts throughout, painting both tragic and hopeful stories. In this second novel, we get a look at Felix’s and Luka’s perspectives. Felix’s character was defined heavily by his desperation to keep his sister safe. Still grieving his older brother’s death, Felix is the glue that has kept his family together. He’s convinced that he must keep them all safe no matter the cost. Luka’s character arc is perhaps my favorite. The arrogant two-time Axis Tour victor should be a character you could easily dislike, but he proves to be more and not just through his relationship with Yael. Luka does a lot of soul searching in this one. He’s lived a pretty scot-free life and has had the privilege of not acknowledging the horrors that Hitler and his party have committed. Luka learns to accept his own culpability, realizing that ignorance does not equal innocence. He also must decide where to go from here, if he’s willing to remain indifferent or finally take a stand.

Blood For Blood is just as heart-wrenching as its predecessor. Many of the characters are broken in different ways and healing is a slow process. Sacrifices are not just an option, they’re a given in a cruel world that demands the highest price from those willing to fight for what is right.

Rating: 4/5

★★★★

Wolf By Wolf by Ryan Graudin

Wolf by Wolf by Ryan Graudin

Title: Wolf By Wolf
Author: Ryan Graudin
Series: Wolf By Wolf, #1
Pages: 388
Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Release Date: October 20th 2015 

      “The year is 1956, and the Axis powers of the Third Reich and Imperial Japan rule the world. To commemorate their Great Victory over Britain and Russia, Hitler and Emperor Hirohito host the Axis Tour: an annual motorcycle race across their conjoined continents. The victor is awarded an audience with the highly reclusive Adolf Hitler at the Victor’s ball.
      Yael, who escaped from a death camp, has one goal: Win the race and kill Hitler. A survivor of painful human experimentation, Yael has the power to skinshift and must complete her mission by impersonating last year’s only female victor, Adele Wolfe. This deception becomes more difficult when Felix, Adele twin’s brother, and Luka, her former love interest, enter the race and watch Yael’s every move. But as Yael begins to get closer to the other competitors, can she bring herself to be as ruthless as she needs to be to avoid discovery and complete her mission?”

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“The wind tore ice across her cheeks. Her face was so numb, so cold, but the wolves burned under her skin. Howling secrets. Hidden things anyone could pick up if they listened closely enough.”

Ryan Graudin’s Wolf By Wolf is a daring reimagining of our world’s history. In this alternate universe, Hitler and his allies have successfully conquered much of Europe and Asia, as well as the northern portion of Africa. The rest of the world has buckled under pressure, choosing peace over war, agreeing to a truce with the notorious leader. Those opposed to the New Order have been forced underground, working in secret, biding their time. With the annual Axis Tour, a motorcycle race that spans continents, soon underway, the resistance is ready to make its move and at the center of their plan is Yael. As a child Yael and her mother were imprisoned at a death camp, where she was subjected to various scientific experiments. The goal behind these experiments: to find a way to perfect the Aryan race by suppressing the melanin in a person’s system, thereby controlling their hair, eye, and skin color. Unbeknownst to the doctor in charge of these speculative trials, Yael developed the ability to “skinshift,” to alter her own appearance into the likes of another.

As Yael begins her mission, to impersonate former Axis Tour Victor Adele Wolfe, her resolve to take down Hitler is stronger than ever. Yael has lost everyone important to her and has been stripped of her own identity through the experimentation she endured as a child. Though she is full of anger and retribution, she recognizes that this mission’s success has the potential to become a catalyst, a spark that will signal a revolution that could give way to a better future for the world. She knows how much depends on her being able to masquerade as someone else. This scheme puts in her in a precarious situation, where every word, look, or action threatens to expose her. This is made even more dangerous by the presence of Adele Wolfe’s twin brother Felix and former competitor Luka Löwe. Both know more about Adele than Yael, and both challenge her view of what she has learned on paper about each. Yael is a determined character, but what sets her apart is, despite the injustices done to her, there remains a part of her who refuses to become like those she hates.

Wolf By Wolf is as terrifying as it is fascinating. Graudin’s world explores crimes by Nazi Germany that are rarely explored: human experimentation, as well as envisioning a different history that is frightening in its plausibility. Graudin’s novel is heartbreaking, thrilling, and near perfect in execution, whose impact will be felt long after finishing.

Rating: 5/5

★★★★★