Many people underestimate how awesome of a playground history is for fiction. Most of the time, writers create sweeping love stories in bygone eras, or maybe they rewrite a historical character with better or worse qualities. But how about meshing history with fantasy to create a biting commentary? Fantasy can easily help to reflect society’s problems, but historical fantasy works just as well too. After all, incorporating fantastical elements into the eras in which these social problems are most prominent can’t make these messages any more obvious.
In the United States’ Reconstruction era, Jane McKeene is about to graduate from Miss Preston’s School of Combat for Negroes, as part of a government act to train all people of color in fighting. Zombies—or “shamblers,” as they are called here—are slowly overtaking the country, and Jane’s only hope of a future is becoming an Attendant to a wealthy Baltimore family. The trouble is, even in a country on the brink of anarchy, Jane’s skin color doesn’t soften the prejudices she faces. But Jane’s got bigger problems, as local families are disappearing to a mysterious place out west, where maybe, just maybe, the United States’ former glory can be restored. Lucky thing Jane’s at the top of her class…
I’ll be honest: I was less interested in this book’s zombie premise, and more in how it would present its protagonist. Jane is your typical hotheaded butt-kicking heroine living in a post-apocalyptic world, but in a way, she has to be. Let’s see: she is a black girl in a post-slavery world, she is miles away from the only family she knows and loves, she has teachers who disregard her, and she lives in a world overrun by zombies. If that doesn’t sound like a sucky era to live in, I don’t know what does. Anyone would have a hard time of it in a world like that, but in a pre-Civil Rights world, where daily survival becomes more and more difficult, on top of being a person of color…it’s a brutal world Jane has to survive.
But that’s the genius of this book’s premise and its execution. There is an unlimited supply of tension, whether from Jane dealing with racist politicians, or people reacting differently to the zombies’ increasing numbers. But I think anyone can agree that the fun of zombies is not just the creativity of their designs, but more the questions and decisions of survival that their very existence draws up. And it’s fascinating seeing different political parties, such as Egalitarians and Survivalists, rising up in light of this catastrophe. The ways a world can change, and the various attempts to deal with it, present all kinds of character studies.
The book also cleverly interweaves bits of Jane’s correspondence to her mother at their family plantation. Jane’s love for her family is what keeps her going, and, without giving away too much, her correspondence with them is made difficult. Neither party knows what is keeping the letters from arriving, but their despair, and their wondering at what is happening, makes the already-grim circumstances even worse. Long story short, you want to create sympathy for your main character? You make their situation as grim and difficult as possible, tease out one thing that gives them the slightest bit of hope, and then finally take it away from them!
Besides the pretty awesome world-building and killer (no pun intended) premise, I have to give props to Justine Ireland for keeping the story’s priorities in order. By that, I mean that the focus of the story remains on Jane and her struggle to reach her family. There are teasings here and there of Jane getting a love interest, but I think they are less instances of fan service and more to show that Jane is a dimensional teenager. Yes, she is a fighter and she knows what she has to do, but she still can get fluttery over guys and have heart-to-hearts with other people, just like a real person.
Whether you’re here for the zombies or for a fantastical look at the social politics of the Reconstruction era, this is still a great book! The action is fun and tense, but most of all, this proves yet again that zombies, the least interesting and most brain-dead (literally) of monsters, can teach us the most important things about humanity.