In ‘Dread Nation’, Justina Ireland introduced us to an alternative America where the Civil War was interrupted by the rise of undead ‘Shamblers’ and to Jane and Katherine, the top students in ‘Miss Preston’s School of Combat for Negro Girls‘. In the violent conclusion to the first book, the two women are separated and Katherine believes Jane is dead.
‘Deathless Divide’ carries straight on from ‘Dread Nation’ but with a significant change in format. Dread Nation’ was told entirely from Jane’s point of view. In ‘Deathless Divide’ the storytelling alternates between first-person accounts from Jane and Katherine. Some indication of the contrasting world views of the two women, Jane’s chapters start with a quote from Shakespeare and Katherine’s chapters start with a quote from the Bible.
The new format has two advantages, we can follow two converging storylines and so cover a lot more territory and we get to know a lot more about Katherine.
What I liked most about ‘Deathless Divide’ is that, despite encountering zombie hordes, seeing an alternative San Francisco, getting an insight into the lives of a bounty hunter and following a long-running story arc on the mad scientist who is responsible for so much of the carnage, the book remained focused on the personalities of the two women and the relationship between them.
We learn that, although Katherine, who is just as deadly as Jane, she is more anxious, more introspective and more aware of the big picture. Katherine can pass for white, an ability she had to use in the previous book. In this book, she finally admits the strain that placed on her and how little she wants to pretend to be someone she is not.
We also see Jane, driven by a need to kill the mad scientist, start to lose her humanity. Jane’s descent into being a predator is captured with empathy but without compromise.
Both women have had to grow up fast since their days at Miss Preston’s and have come to realise that they and their world have changed in ways that make the futures they thought they would have irrelevant and unobtainable. The way they help each other to find a future and to compensate for their weaknesses and overcome their fear and anger is at the heart of the story.
I liked that the brutality, greed, fear and racism that drives the America Jane and Katherine are trying to survive in remained plausible and all-pervasive. It seemed to me that the Shamblers sometime felt like a manifestation of all the hate and pain or perhaps a punishment for sin depending on whether you take Jane’s Shakespearian or Katherine’s Bible-based view.
One of the strengths of the book is Justina Ireland’s prose. Let me give you some examples:
In her alternate timeline, the dynamic of the American Dream remains unchanged. True, in this world, the Chinese dominate San Francisco but, as she has one of her characters explain, everything else is the same
‘Don’t let San Francisco fool you. It might seem pretty, but it’s been built on the same volatile mixture of greed and exclusion as the rest of this country. Now, it’s a powder keg just waiting for a spark.’
Then there are Jane’s reflections on the conflicts and ironies of her own black-but-could-pass identity, for example:
‘The school had been built in the manner of a plantation house, and while such a design caused the other girls to suck their teeth and shake their heads, it made me feel something that few places have made me feel: safe…
…I do realize that there is a fine bit of irony in the architecture of oppression granting me a measure of peace, but keep in mind I was not always the woman awoken to the dynamics of power I became during my tenure at Miss Preston’s.’
Katherine is very much aware that she can’t change who she is. At one point she says:
‘The thing that stuck with me from Miss Preston’s little speech was the idea that we were embarking on a new life. But the problem about starting a new life is you bring your old self with you.’
Then, later, when she’s thinking about her own lack of attraction to men or women, she observes:
I have come to believe that it just is not in my being to feel such a powerful longing for a person, not physically nor romantically. I am sure that there are lots of reasons why, and folks most likely would try to blame my upbringing, which I would say is wholly incorrect. I am the way God has made me, and I shall not question the wisdom of my Creator.
We also get some great insights into Jane’s decline. In the first book, she was irrepressible and proud of her achievements. In this book, as her life devolves to that of a vengeance-driven killing machine she feels the pain of it. She says to herself:
It’s like someone took out all the things that made me Jane—all the good parts, and the bad—leaving nothing but rusty razor blades in their place.
Maybe this is what despair feels like, a slow descent into an infinite abyss.
‘Deathless Divide’ was a sequel that didn’t let me down, The story kept its momentum and its emotional charge, making me care about the characters and keeping me needing to know what would happen next. The ending was satisfying, credible and left me just a little hope that there might be a third book