Don’t Judge a Book by its Zombies

We’ve all been told not to judge a book by its cover. At this point it feels cliché, even if the words hold value. But more to the point, sometimes it can be good to judge a book by its cover! Dread Nation by Justina Ireland is a kick-ass book with a kick-ass cover. Judge away! But please, please do not judge this book by its zombies.

I’d never describe myself as a lover of the zombie genre, though I’ve read more than a few books featuring the undead. I understand why some readers are skeptical of these stories and I realize that it doesn’t really help my case to say “but this book isn’t really about the zombies.” I mean, that’s what everyone says, right? But listen…this book?  It isn’t really about the zombies!

283ca973-6947-478d-abe1-e941ef671538-dreadnation_hc-for-webDread Nation takes place in the years following the Civil War. In this version of history the dead began to rise during the war, forcing the North and South into an uneasy truce. The South was ravaged by dead soldiers who have risen from battlefields and agreed to end slavery in exchange for Northern support. However, like during the actual Reconstruction Era, many Northerners and Southerners in this version of history remain determined to punish people of color and pursue the interests of white (and only white) Americans. One way that white supremacy manifests in Dread Nation is through a reeducation act that forces native and black children into schools. They are taught how to fight the zombie hordes – called shamblers in this book – sacrificing their own well-being to ensure the safety and comfort of wealthy and white society.

Jane McKeene, Dread Nation’s narrator, is a student at one of these schools. She is training to be a lady’s attendant, expected to cater to the whims and needs of a member of high society while also lopping off the heads of any shamblers who come-a-shambling. Though Jane takes readily to combat training and has a brilliant mind, she struggles to follow rules, is disinterested in etiquette, and bristles at the expectation that she ‘know her place.’  When Jane and two of her friends wind up on the wrong side of some very powerful (and very racist) politicians, they are banished to Summerland, Kansas.


Justina Ireland

Summerland is supposed to be the vision of the future: technologically advanced, morally pure, well defended, and structured to provide comfort to white society through the toil and suffering of people of color. But Jane quickly discovers that not everything in Summerland is as it seems and that the poisonous ills woven through the fabric of this ‘utopia’ threaten not just the people of Summerland, but the survival of the human race in the battle against the dead. It will take all of Jane’s courage, scrappiness, and intellect to find a way to escape from this flimsy house of cards before irreversible disaster strikes.

It is worth noting that Ireland uses upsetting language to describe some groups of people. To my knowledge, these words are used in a historically accurate way even if they are far beyond the pale of what is acceptable today. It can make parts of this book uncomfortable, jarring, and difficult to read, as it should be.

Dread Nation holds its own as a dystopian zombie novel with a fast paced and thrilling story filled with dark mysteries and some gruesome deaths. But this book also serves as an excellent work of speculative fiction: reimagining the Civil War, many of its famous people and events, and the societal forces that both led to this conflict and impeded any legitimate notion of equality long after the war’s end. Ireland uses this book to take a frank look at the ways bigotry and hate thrive, even as humanity struggles to survive. And, finally, Jane is a phenomenal narrator: witty, charming, plucky, and perhaps just a bit deceptive as she pulls the reader into her story. Like I said – it’s not about the zombies!


I got a kick out of Jedediah Berry’s The Manual of Detection when I read it last fall, but months went by before I realized it belongs to a niche category of fiction called steampunk.

In Berry’s book, Charles Unwin is reluctantly promoted to detective when his renowned gumshoe boss goes missing. But Unwin is determined to find his boss only so he can return to his comfortable clerkship on one of the lower floors of the massive Agency where they both work. The story is set in a perpetually rain-slicked city that is home to broken-down carnivals, manipulative dreamers (literally), and whole communities of sleepwalkers: a fantastic place for Berry to stage his large-scale crimes. In addition to this atmospheric dreamscape (and despite the modern-day language that makes it seem contemporary) the book is full of things that would tip off a seasoned steampunk reader – anachronisms such as typewriters, phonographs, wind-up alarm clocks, and even a flatbed steam truck. Readers are in for a wild ride in this twisty genre-bender that mixes mystery, the how-to manual, speculative fantasy and alternative history.

At the time of reading it, I noted that The Manual of Detection reminded me in some ways of the film Dark City and the retro-futuristic Mr. X comic books I’d enjoyed in the 80s, but I didn’t yet understand that a whole genre had coalesced around these characteristics. Since then, I have come to learn that steampunk novels are often built off the settings and technology found in the works of writers such as H.G. Wells, Jules Verne and Mary Shelley. Victorian fashions and architecture are common, as are clockworks and other mechanical age devices including zeppelins, coal-fired trains, and steam-driven vehicles that billow their mist into these richly imagined worlds.

One of the earliest steampunk novels is The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers from 1983. For a classic in the genre, the cognoscenti might point you toward The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling from 1991. Coming some years later are Neverwhere by the ever-popular Neil Gaiman, along with Perdido Street Station and The Scar by China Mieville. More recent titles include the clockwork-inspired trilogy by Jay Lake — Mainspring, Escapement, and Pinion; Not Less Than Gods by Kage Baker; The Dream of Perpetual Motion by Dexter Palmer; The Kingdom of Ohio by Matthew Flaming; and 2010 Hugo Award finalist, Boneshaker by Cherie Priest.

So wind the stem on your pocket watch and strap on your brass aviator goggles — the steampunk airships are here to take you away!


Abraham Vampire

You’re joking, right?

Abraham Lincoln, a vampire hunter?

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire HunterWhen I heard about this novel by Seth Grahame-Smith, author of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, I laughed because I thought it was a joke. The cover shows a very stately President Lincoln looking a little left of the camera, the tip of an ax peeking over his right shoulder.  Flip the book over and you’ll see blood splatters and a vampire’s head held behind Lincoln’s back.

I put the book on hold for myself before seeing the cover because the title was so fantastic. I thought I was in for a humorous 350 pages. And parts of it were funny. Darkly humorous. But as I read on, I began to see how the book could be read as a piece of literature. Vampire hunting aside, the book gives a good history lesson for Civil War and history buffs alike. I began to see how our  16th president  could be this fierce vampire hunter, wielding an ax and flinging stakes like he was born to it. And in fact, according to Grahame-Smith, he was born to be a vampire hunter. I don’t want to spoil anything, but the novel goes into how the future of America—throughout the Civil War and beyond—relies on Lincoln remaining a vampire hunter. 

Older Abraham Lincoln, 1860s

Photo Source: Iowa Digital Library

My vision of Abraham Lincoln had always been from the photographs of him: a long and lean man with a face full of sorrows, sometimes a beard, which a little girl had advised him to grow because the ladies like “whiskers,” see-through eyes so light in color they look like sea glass.  I saw him as a man weighted down by the loss of two sons, bouts of intense melancholy and the looming Civil War.

Told through both third person narrative and journal entries kept by Lincoln from a young age, this book moves quickly. Even though it’s fiction, it could have gone in an entirely different direction. Lincoln as vampire hunter could have been goofy fun. Instead, the story is a serious one. Lincoln comes across as a warrior, one step ahead of the monsters that would overwhelm the country.

Fast-paced and compelling, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is my choice for a few hours escapism.


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