Thank you so much to caitycat! I doubt I would have stumbled across this novel without her review, and I thoroughly enjoyed it despite some minor complaints about potential red herrings or loose threads.
The novel is set near Baltimore in 1880. The North never won the Civil War because of the zombie outbreak that followed the Battle of Gettysburg, leading to a quick reconciliation between the two sides to face the common threat to the survival of humanity. Slaves were declared free, but, for many, there is not much difference between their former lives and current – they don’t even get the temporary Reconstruction era where the North was still trying to protect former slaves before turning their backs and letting the South do as it pleased. Blacks are treated as disposable bodies to be used as zombie fodder, using similar excuses about black constitution being more resistant to disease and viruses that were used to justify using blacks as slaves to begin with. Black teenagers are forced into schools where they learn how to fight zombies and defend whites. These schools are of varying qualities, but Jane, the novel’s protagonist and narrator, attends one of the best, where she and other black teenage girls are trained to serve as Attendants to rich white women. Jane is one of the top students and one of the best fighters even if her décor and etiquette leave much to be desired. Katherine is another top student and Jane’s nemesis, excelling at etiquette, and enjoying the kind of girly things like fashion that Jane looks down upon.
When a lecture gone wrong ends with a zombie attack, Jane and Katherine keep their heads, and are responsible for preventing a larger outbreak. However, both students broke some rules while attending the lecture so they are forced to spend time together as they complete their punishments, and end up investigating the disappearance of a local missing family. They do not discover much, but somehow raise suspicions, and it is not long before Jane, Katherine and Red Jack/Jackson are held captive under a weak pretext and shipped west – to a secret town, Summerland, run by the political Survivalist group.
Once in Summerland, Jane quickly realizes that things are not all as they seem and something decidedly shady is going on in this frontier town. To add to that, the town’s leaders are all very unhappy with the new world order – less so the zombie hordes, more so the fact that black people are no longer slaves. They want a return to before, and while Jane was already treated as a second class citizen in Baltimore, it becomes even worse here, where black people are treated even more disposable than back East.
This novel has two major strengths, and these are Ireland’s world building and her characters/relationship developments. I loved seeing Katherine and Jane’s relationship slowly shift, how Ireland slowly drew out the stories of Jane’s past, and the hints she gave of how other regions handled the outbreak by introducing people from various regions in Summerland’s security team. I thought her descriptions of how Southern society would have changed and reacted to the loss of their slaves, and their treatment of the freed slaves was entirely reasonable, and also how certain regions of the South might have been more vulnerable to zombie attack than others. Some of the things draw from history in a different context, such as the re-education schools Native American children were forced to attend or the way Southerners came up with creative laws to create a new system of slavery in all but name.
The thing is, I feel like this novel had some definite flaws or plot holes but I enjoyed everything else so much that I have overlooked them much more than I would in any other novel. Between the initial lecture with the zombie vaccine experiment to some of the actions involving the town’s security and the zombies, it felt like the novel was hinting at something much more nefarious. I think part of this was actually one of Ireland’s points, though – bigotry on its own can lead to some very stupid actions since generally smart people twist logic to make reality match their prejudices. While I wanted more reason behind some earlier actions, I think this is very much the reason for the wrong turn the lecture took. However, even with that caveat, I feel like the novel was hinting at a more massive conspiracy theory than there ended up being but maybe I am too much of a conspiracy theorist. This is only the first novel so maybe more will come to light, but I will definitely read it when it comes out.
So here is the spoiler of where I thought the novel would go but it didn’t: I basically expected there to be a big reveal about how the Survivalist party was trying to cause an even bigger zombie outbreak to make people agree with their methods and that maybe they actually wanted the vaccine to fail in Baltimore on purpose and that was why the town security avoided killing zombies, to use them in a war against the North.