Arley Sorg Reviews Deathless Divide by Justina Ireland

Deathless Divide, Justina Ireland (Balzer + Bray 978-0-06-257063-5, $18.99, 560pp, hc) February 2020.

The sequel to 2018’s Dread Nation, Justina Ireland’s Deathless Divide begins with clever, quick recaps, and is lined throughout with enough unobtrusive explanation that one could easily read it as a standalone. That said, the first book is excellent and shouldn’t be passed up. Anyone who plans to read the first book should not read this review, as some information will spoil the surprises.

The dead first rose during the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863. Many in the nation shifted from slavery to conscripting (or kidnapping) people of color to train in fighting the dead, usually on the behalf of wealthy white people. Jane McKeene and Katherine Devereaux ended up in a racist town in Kansas called Summerland. The town was overrun by zombies and Jane and Katherine (Jane calls her ”Kate,” to her chagrin) escaped with a few others. In Deathless Divide the two of them, both trained in the ”defensive arts” (AKA zombie killing) at a prestigious school, lead their small group of survivors to a town called Nicodemus, which is near enough to reach on short supplies and said to be populated almost entirely by Negroes. They find a batch of survivors from Summerland already there. Worse, the Summerland citizens are calling for Jane to be hanged. Jane is arrested and has to decide if she should break out or trust in her allies, not to mention the leadership of Nicodemus, to deal with the situation. She also has to decide if she should try to find her mother. Meanwhile, zombies amass outside the gates.

Deathless Divide opens with a prologue which goes far to set up the reader with characters, story, and setting. It’s so self-contained it could be a short story on its own. Moreover, it’s beautifully layered with class and race commentary while being grounded in narrative. It’s a stunning opening to a solid book.

Deathless Divide may even be an important book. It reads as a good adventure story, complete with a sturdy plot structure, steady pacing, and memorable scenes. The story moves deeper into the Old West, told from the alternating points of view of two young mixed-race women. The paucity of Old West narratives from Negro/Black perspectives alone makes this relevant. Add to this a deeply researched world ripe with tidbits both historical and historically based, and it becomes educational entertainment. The characters’ own struggles in terms of their place within different cultural groups elevates the entire narrative again in meaning and depth, not to mention relatability. All of this without seeming preachy or heavy handed.

The relationship between Jane and Katherine lacks the points of conflict which propelled book one, but the way these characters impact each other is remarkable. Kate and Jane were rivals, and very different people; here they are more like similar people who have lived in very different circumstances, and it makes a lot of sense. At heart they are both trained warriors doing the best they can for the ones they care about.

One of the best aspects of this book is the naked exposure of attitudes towards race, the exploration of various kinds and degrees of attitudes, including internalized self-hate. There are expected interactions – which, even though they are obvious, are notably missing from most Old West stories. Then there are subtler and less expected notions: ”kind-hearted” or ”well-meaning” people assuming that Jane or other characters are Katherine’s servants; or Jane being convinced that even in a town run by Black folks, even with the sheriff assuring her she’ll be fine, as long as white folks are crying out for mob justice, she is bound to be hanged. Representation is deft, including ways Negroes in different positions struggle with or benefit from circumstances, as are the varied positions of all kinds of folks, not only Black people: ”But killing Negroes wasn’t against the law in Colorado Territory, just like it wasn’t illegal to kill an Indian in most places….”

Gender is discussed through a variety of women with different wants, from a warrior who wants to settle down and get married, to another who has no romantic desires at all. At one point, Katherine’s male (gay) friend Carolina tries to convince her not to run off to California. She declines: ”I smile tightly, but say nothing. He is trying to protect me, in the simple way men are always trying to protect women: by stealing away their freedom.”

Perhaps one of the most cleverly delivered themes is the concept of people pushing their own agendas, resulting in great harm. This is related through Gideon Carr, an inventor who builds devices to combat the dead, whose ambition for success seems to justify any action, as well as decisions of other characters, such as Daniel Redfern, whose actions get people hurt, and even the protagonists themselves.

The struggle with many sequels based on great concepts is, all the fun ideas are in book one. Deathless Divide has this problem. Dread Nation reads more like an alternate history adventure than a zombie book, with the focus on cool alternate history ideas, exploring social changes, historical events, and inventions through the viewpoints of wonderful characters in essential conflicts. Deathless Divide offers less innovation, and most of the wonder of discovery is spent in the first book. The tone of Deathless Divide‘s Part One, ”In the Garden of Good and Evil”, is strongly reminiscent of standard zombie fare, such as The Walking Dead: bleak outlooks, seemingly hopeless scenarios, replete with unbeatable zombie masses. Exchanges between Jane and Katherine seem similar to Rick Grimes and Shane Walsh in their slightly tense friendship. Plus the terrible choices, such as having to kill friends and child zombies. These hallmarks of modern zombie stories are perhaps inevitable, but they are generally overused and less interesting.

Towards the end of Part One and for the entirety of Part Two, ”The Road to Perdition,” things get back on track. The story has a handful of surprises and innovations as it settles into Old West adventure. Jane is a great hero, the gritty type who often thinks she is beyond redemption. Sometimes she embodies optimism, other times perseverance, and she occasionally delivers cool but telling lines. Not to mention a ton of shocking historical revelations, such as a white man asking Katherine, who ”passes” (meaning she is sometimes mistaken for white) if she wants to go to Oregon, ”No Chinamen, no darkies. Did you know the Oregon Territory has made Negroes illegal?”

Deathless Divide is staggering in what it achieves. It’s satisfying, exciting at times, and powerful. There are complicated relationships, complicated people, complicated romances, and it’s all very relatable. Themes on found family and friendship give it a carefully delivered, heartwarming touch. More importantly, there’s a sense of empowerment and of fulfillment, one which, hopefully, will be imparted to readers who (finally) see themselves as heroes in an Old West narrative.

Arley Sorg, Associate Editor, grew up in England, Hawaii, and Colorado. He studied Asian Religions at Pitzer College. He lives in Oakland, and usually writes in local coffee shops. A 2014 Odyssey Writing Workshop graduate, he is soldering together a novel, has thrown a few short stories into orbit, and hopes to launch more.

This review and more like it in the June 2020 issue of Locus.

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