Review: Dread Nation

Imagine if the Battle of Gettysburg had ended in a different kind of bloodshed.

Imagine if, instead of North versus South, the defining battle of the Civil War generation was the living versus the dead.The

Imagine if emancipated slaves were “freed,” only to be forced into an indentured servitude of killing zombies.

Imagine if the protagonist who told you this tale was a whip-smart young African-American woman who’s quick with a sword.

You’d be pretty psyched to read it, right? Right. And you’d have every reason to be, because it’s so good.

30223025Dread Nation is a New York Times bestseller. It hit the YA scene this past spring and has been one of the most talked-about books of the year. It’s difficult to categorize Justina Ireland’s historical-fiction-action-horror-magical-realism-feminist-fantasy thrill ride, because it’s all of those things. Honestly, I don’t have a single criticism of this book, other than the fact that I now have to wait impatiently for its sequel.

Our protagonist is Jane McKeene, a biracial young woman who was born right after the Battle of Gettysburg, when the dead soldiers on the field suddenly rose up and attacked the living. Yes: Colonial zombies. Jane was born to a wealthy white woman, the wife of a plantation owner, but Jane is clearly the product of a decidedly non-white father. Controversial as this may be, Jane’s mother loves and fiercely protects her mixed race daughter, eventually conceding that the best place for her as a teenager is in a School of Combat for girls. Black girls who are properly trained to fight zombies — dubbed “shamblers” — can earn placement with a wealthy [white] family as a sort of governess who protects them from the undead.

“Maybe that’s your problem. You been waiting for a man.”

Jane McKeene, in response to someone saying that “no man” has been able to fight off the shamblers

I won’t spoil much more about the plot beyond this setup because you truly have to read for yourself to appreciate the wild ride on which Dread Nation takes you. Suffice to say, despite slavery being abolished, racism is a central theme of the story and soaks every aspect of our characters’ lives. Speaking of characters, Jane is one of my favorite leads I’ve read in a long time. She’s well-developed, multi-dimensional, and likable as hell thanks to her badassery and sharp tongue. The supporting cast (on the “good guys” team, anyway) is also fantastic. Red Jack, Katherine, and even some of the other smaller characters from Jane’s combat school were clearly put together with careful thought, rather than merely serving as accents to Jane. There’s even a slight hint at bisexuality towards the end of the book, which I’d be curious to see Ireland expand upon in the upcoming sequel(s). LGBTQ characters — especially those of color — need representation in YA lit. The premise of zombies and historical fiction could hook audiences who otherwise don’t seek out LGBTQ titles into appreciating characters who identify as queer.

“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.”

Jane McKeene

Like other zombie stories before it (The Walking Dead, for example), Dread Nation drives home the fact that, in the event of an undead apocalypse, it’s other humans we should fear the most. The racists are the true villains in this story, not the bloodthirsty shamblers. Jane has two weapons at her disposal: her scythe for the shamblers and her mouth for the white establishment. Indeed, some of the most heart-pounding scenes are when Jane stands up to the white folks hellbent on keeping her compliant. You’ll cheer for her and cry for her, and you’ll quietly reflect on the parallels Ireland has drawn between her horrific zombie world and the one we inhabit today. Are POC (People of Color) still, in a way, enslaved? Are they expected to work for the benefit and amusement of white folks, especially white folks in power? Do we have a Jane McKeene in 2018 who’s leading the way to justice and freedom with one hand while battling demons with the other? Is there an outspoken voice who’s not afraid to stand up for what’s right, even when their opponents scream loudly to silence them? Colin Kaepernick, Malala Yousafzai, and Laverne Cox are a few that come to mind. Are we listening, and are we willing to follow them into battle? These are the thoughts I sat with long after the blood spilled in the pages had dried.

Ireland wraps up Dread Nation in such a way that feels satisfying and not too cliffhanger-ish. Honestly, I hadn’t even known that this was the first in a series until after I’d read it, so I was thrilled to find out that I get to follow Jane on more shambler-slaying adventures. Zombies aren’t generally on my radar as a subject matter I seek out in my reading material, so I was pleasantly suprised at how accessible this was for someone who doesn’t do the horror genre. The amazing protagonist, fast-paced storytelling, excellent supporting characters, and metaphorical commentary on social justice issues were more than enough to hold my attention. I can’t wait to sink my teeth into more of Dread Nation. (Too punny? Lemme try again.) I’m dying to read more. (Nope; that’s not it, either.) Reading this book is a no-brainer. (Okay, I’m done.)


Imagine if the Battle of Gettysburg had ended in a different kind of bloodshed. Imagine if, instead of North versus South, the defining battle of the Civil War generation was the living versus the dead.The Imagine if emancipated slaves were "freed," only to be forced into an indentured servitude of killing zombies. Imagine if the... Continue Reading →

Review: Children of Blood and Bone

Oh, my friends. I closed this book shut about five days ago and am still reeling from it. It was heart-pounding and gut-wrenching and soul-stirring. Children of Blood and Bone is worth the hype. IMG_20180307_200015.jpg

Anybody who follows literary news has heard of first time author Tomi Adeyemi’s debut YA fantasy — book one of a trilogy — at least once or twice in the last year. She’s made headlines for her record-setting book and movie rights deals at only 23 years old. But Adeyemi’s paycheck isn’t the top story here: It’s that the next big thing in YA is a fantasy adventure starring a cast of Black characters, written by a Black woman, in a genre whose previous headliners have been Katniss, Hermione, Arya, and Tris… white kids. COBB is the story for the era of Black Lives Matter. Of the still-smoldering box office heat from Black Panther’s massive success. Zélie is a heroine whose time has come and it’s exhilarating to tag along for the ride, or should I say, rise.

When Zélie was a young child, King Saran gathered all the maji (magic folks) in Orïsha and executed them, including her mother, as he was determined to eradicate magic from the kingdom forever. This was known as The Raid. Zélie herself is a diviner, which is like a junior maji who hasn’t yet matured into their powers. There were many diviners left in Orïsha after the raid and all of them are treated as second-class citizens. The king’s guards collect extra taxes on diviners and their families, many diviners are enslaved in indentured servitude, and their appearance — dark black skin and bright white hair — is seen as a blight; diviners are called “maggots.” The king’s daughter, Amari, sees the world differently from her father and doesn’t agree with his treatment of the diviners. She eventually runs away from the palace, unwittingly teams up with Zélie and Zélie’s brother, Tzain, and the three find themselves on a quest to restore magic to Orïsha. They’re pursued by Amari’s brother Inan and the king’s guards, who stay hot on their trail in a breathtaking adventure through dangerous and enchanted lands.

That brief summary doesn’t do the book justice, but I’m going to focus less on a plot recap and more on some analysis. And Adeyemi’s given us a LOT of material to work with here.

First, it’s important to note that Adeyemi’s inspiration for this book was the Black Lives Matter movement or, more specifically, the disturbing rise of police brutality against Black people. In COBB, the metaphor is that the diviners are the Black community and the royals/upper class are whites (it’s important to note that Orïsha is an all-Black world but that the upper class are described as having much lighter skin because they don’t have to do the hard labor outside the way the diviners and other common folks do). In an interview with NPR, Adeyemi said that “this book, while it is an epic high fantasy, is about living in a society that teaches you to hate what makes you magical.”

I want to talk about Zélie’s appearance. I have to wonder why Adeyemi chose white as the haircolor for diviners. Red, green, or golden hair would have been just as striking and perhaps a nod towards Pan-Africanism. I’m led to assume that the author wanted something that was such a stark contrast to their rich, dark skin that it would almost signify a yin and yang effect. In this passage, I get a clue that I might be right:

We are all children of blood and bone.

All instruments of vengeance and virtue.

The reader is never under the impression that Zélie is a perfect heroine. She’s stubborn, she’s distrustful almost to a fault, and she’s a reluctant leader. There’s a scene when Zélie admits that she’s “always afraid” and that this is her true weakness. Watching her mother hanged before her eyes at such a young age hardened her, but broke her, too. Zélie has lived a life of fear, knowing that those who are in power can take anything they want at any moment without any recourse for their actions.

And it’s through Zélie that the reader can see the fear of what life is like for Tamir Rice’s mother. For Sandra Bland’s mother. Orïsha is America, where the powerful take from the weak, where institutional racism is modernized oppression. Zélie is literal Black Girl Magic who’s on a quest to restore her people’s power. On that note, I also want to mention that Zélie’s appearance changes as the journey moves along. Her hair transforms from long and wavy to its natural kink and ‘fro, and that’s not accidental. As she gets closer to embracing who she is as a diviner, she’s also reclaiming her Black self, her magic.Logopit_1521692283209.jpg

Amari is our other leading female protagonist and is the king’s daughter, a princess. Her heart is in the right place but it’s understandably difficult for Zélie to warm to her at first. Amari’s introduction to Zélie includes the Orïshan equivalent of “But I can’t be one of the bad guys; I have a Black friend!” This exchange between the two is cringe-worthy:

“I am trying to help you.” Amari clenches the skirt of her dress. “I’ve given up everything to help you people –”

“You people?” I fume.

“We can save the diviners –”

“You want to save the diviners, but you won’t even sell your damn dress?”

The conversation perfectly exemplifies the grievances that many POC (People of Color) have with white allyship: that it’s easy to say you support Black people and stand against institutional racism, but what’s really needed is action. Amari has trouble taking the proverbial and literal clothes off her back to help the person she claims to support. Amari’s own journey is similar to Zélie’s in that bits and pieces of her are broken along the way as she endures physical danger and emotional pain. And what we witness is her shedding her misconceptions, her privilege, and the belief system that’s been ingrained in her.


Inan is another protagonist – the book is actually told from three different first-person perspectives: Zélie’s, Amari’s, and Inan’s – and his character is the most complex, in my opinion. His may also be the most uncomfortable and hard to pin down because he vacillates between “good guy” and “bad guy” a few times over. Inan is Amari’s brother, which makes him the king’s son and a prince. He’s been pretty solidly programmed over his lifetime to place duty before all else and he makes some terrible choices as a result, not the least of which is hunting down his sister with the intent to maybe possibly kill her. But – plot twist! AND SPOILER! – he’s a diviner! Lo and behold, the guy who hates “maggots” and who does daddy’s bidding for him suddenly starts to develop a bright white streak in his hair. What is Adeyemi’s purpose for this character development other than to advance the plot? I think she wants us to examine what self-loathing looks like and how destructive it can be. I think she wants us to glimpse what mixed-race POC may wrestle with, when one side of their parentage instills in them that their race is superior and that society will shun the other side. I also think she wants Inan to feel true guilt for his actions so that he can feel true redemption when he is accepted and loved by Zélie. Adeyemi may be making the statement that those of us with white privilege can truly never know how differently society treats POC until we’re in their shoes (or hair).

I mentioned that Inan was an uncomfortable character and that may be because those of us with white privilege can recognize some of ourselves in him, and that doesn’t feel too good. When Zélie is insisting to Inan that she will never be treated as an equal by the royals and the upper class, no matter how hard he tries to convince his father, because law enforcement will always have an eye on her and await any opportunity to force her into the stocks:

“Inan’s eyes grow wide, but he presses, ‘The guards I know are good. They keep Lagos safe –‘

‘My gods.’ I stalk away. I can’t listen to this. I’m a fool for ever thinking we could ever work together.”

How many conversations have you had with someone, or witnessed on social media, about Black Lives Matter that involved someone chiming in with some version of “But the police are good! They’re there to protect us!”? That’s what this right here is. And so, Inan isn’t distinctly a “good guy” or a “bad guy,” as much as we want to like him. Inan benefits from the system. He stands to become king. He agrees to help Zélie on her quest to restore magic, but ultimately, he just tries to convince her that she should try to fit in by being his girlfriend and return with him to the castle where everything will be just fine. Inan may have the hots for Zélie, but he’s not going out of his way to disrupt things and make his father mad. See above re: white allyship. Adeyemi has masterfully crafted a fantasy adventure that’s low-key a modern social commentary manifesto.

There’s a lot I’ve left out, including romance (with a scene of explicit and enthusiastic consent), violence, at least one handful of tearjerker moments, and a cliffhanger [shakes fist at the sky in Adeyemi’s general direction]. But it’s the first in the Legacy of Orisha series so I trust we’ll have a resolution… hopefully sooner rather than later. In the meantime, geek out with me and find out which Maji Clan you’re in (think Hogwarts houses meets Myers Briggs). I’m a Connector (and a Hufflepuff at Hogwarts, so this totally makes sense). Click here to take the quiz.

I want to close with a final word about race. I am, quite obviously, a white woman. This book pierced me to my soul and I wept and cheered with every turn of the page. But I acknowledge that this book was not about me or for me, and I am grateful to Tomi Adeyemi for writing such an exquisite and exciting and emotive piece of literature for those of us who can benefit from a first-person perspective – even an allegorical one – of racism and racially-charged violence. From her NPR interview:

“Children of color need a mirror to see themselves in. And then people who don’t have that experience, they need a window. They need a really personalized way to see what people who are different from them are going through.”

With gratitude, thank you for the window, Ms. Adeyemi. We can’t wait for the next one.

[Sidenote: this book also fulfilled my #BookRiotReadHarderChallenge2018 category of a “New-to-You YA Series” book. See the Challenge details here:

Oh, my friends. I closed this book shut about five days ago and am still reeling from it. It was heart-pounding and gut-wrenching and soul-stirring. Children of Blood and Bone is worth the hype.  Anybody who follows literary news has heard of first time author Tomi Adeyemi's debut YA fantasy -- book one of a... Continue Reading →

Review: The Secret of Nightingale Wood

Category: Middle Grade

I read The Secret of Nightingale Wood a few months ago after it was recommended to me by the most excellent staffers at the Curious Iguana bookstore in downtown Frederick, MD. I expected a fun and easy read given the genre, but it was compelling and evocative and deeply moving; it caught me off guard and I couldn’t shake it for weeks.

IMG_20180225_195339Our protagonist for Nightingale Wood is a 12 year-old child named Henrietta — called Henry — who’s moved to Hope House in the year 1919 with her parents, her baby sister, and her Nanny Jane for a fresh start after a terrible tragedy. Hope House is near the English seashore but is quite removed from the rest of the town, with sprawling acreage and gardens and woods to explore. It’s clear from the start that Henry’s mother is unwell, and just as we start to delve into the backstory of these characters and how they arrived at Hope House, Henry’s father abruptly leaves England for work abroad and things feel more bleak than ever for the family. While Henry’s mother spends her days locked in the bedroom upon the orders of the cruel Dr. Hardy, Henry finds solace in the woods beyond the grounds of the mysterious Hope House, where she discovers a stranger who will eventually reveal its secrets.

Henry is bright and feisty and the manipulative, wicked Dr. Hardy is her foil. Henry’s mother is suffering from what’s obviously severe depression and, true to the era, has been prescribed loads of tranquilizing medications and “rest cure” by the doctor, who visits Hope House frequently to make sure she — and the rest of the household — are following his orders.

Nightingale Wood has its mysteries, sure. And the setting and mood certainly nod towards the classic, The Secret Garden, which will entice many readers who love a fairy tale theme. But what drew me into this story was Mama. For me, Nightingale Wood was the story of what happened on the other side of the door in The Yellow Wallpaper.

In college, I read the famous short story The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman for a Feminist Lit class. Even as a child-free twenty year-old, I was haunted by the tale of the woman who was locked away from her family in the room with the yellow wallpaper on the male doctor’s orders of “rest cure” to treat her mental illness (which is widely accepted in many interpretations to have been postpartum depression, or even postpartum psychosis). In the late 1800s-early 1900s, “rest cure” was the practice of forcing inactivity upon a patient in an effort to cure “hysteria,” or other such perceived mental illness. It was overwhelmingly prescribed for women, though, and as doctors at the time were men, it was often abused as a misogynistic means of controlling women who were either otherwise healthy or in need of real medical treatment, not confinement.

IMG_20180225_195701This is what happens to Mama in The Secret of Nightingale Wood. She’s imprisoned and told that her valid feelings of depression are nothing but a manifestation of her hysteria. I empathized deeply with the heartsick mother, especially as a postpartum depression survivor myself. And so, we see Dr. Hardy dole out tranquilizers, make demands of her family to make certain she’s locked in her room at all times, speak hatefully and threateningly to Henry, and even strong-arm his way into a patriarchal role in the family. Long after I put this book down, I couldn’t shake Mama and her grief. Which reminds me of a favorite quote from this book (I have a lot): “Perhaps that’s what grief is, Henrietta… Grief is just amputated love.”

IMG_20180225_195615Author Lucy Strange has a positively melodic writing style. Despite its publication date of 2017, I truly felt as though I was reading a classic, and I credit Strange’s prose for that.

Technically, Nightingale Wood is rated for Middle Grade readers, aged 9 and up. The writing isn’t difficult to comprehend and, at just under 300 pages, it’s not a large book, either. A third or fourth grader could read it. But it’s possible that an elementary-aged child will miss some of the themes and details that an older reader wouldn’t. And there are some thematic elements which are questionable for that age, like death, doctor abuse, mental illness, and general feelings of despair. As a mother of three children, I’d qualify it as a perfectly appropriate adult fiction read, so don’t be embarrassed to browse the juvenile reader’s section for this title. If your child reads it, I would encourage you to read it, too, not only because it’s truly a beautiful story ***SEMI-SPOILER ALERT*** — it actually does have a lovely, happy ending — but because there’s so much material there to discuss with your son or daughter and gives you the ability to answer any difficult questions they may have.

As soon as I’m finished with my Book Riot Read Harder 2018 Challenge, I can’t wait to read The Secret of Nightingale Wood again. I haven’t fallen this head over heels in love with a book in a long time. I promise you will, too.

Category: Middle Grade I read The Secret of Nightingale Wood a few months ago after it was recommended to me by the most excellent staffers at the Curious Iguana bookstore in downtown Frederick, MD. I expected a fun and easy read given the genre, but it was compelling and evocative and deeply moving; it caught me off... Continue Reading →

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