Wednesday 15 May 2024

Deathless Divide by Justina Ireland

The undead plague continues to roll across the United States of America. The east coast is almost gone, and the midwest is under siege. Escaping the ruin of Summerland, Jane McKeene and nemesis-turned-ally Katherine Deveraux try to make it to a neighbouring town, where a scientist hopes to have unlocked a cure for the undead curse...or at least an immunisation. Betrayals threaten, and the last hope of California gleams on the horizon, if they can make it that far.

Deathless Divide is the sequel and follow-up to Justina Ireland's 2018 novel, Dread Nation, picking up moments after that book ended. The first half of the novel is essentially more Dread Nation, continuing story and character arcs directly from that book (you can't really read this novel as a standalone). This remains compelling, with Jane and Katherine's fiery frenemy relationship continuing to provide a solid dramatic spine for the story.

Halfway through, there's an abrupt time jump to a point where things have become considerably more apocalyptic, with Jane and Katherine now separated and pursuing different storylines, which eventually lead them back into contact and on the road to their much-dreamt goal of reaching California. This allows Ireland to explore the two characters' growth and change, or in Jane's case a regression as she becomes hyper-fixated on vengeance against someone who wronged her, to the point of destroying every other relationship in her life.

The book has a grimmer tone even than its forebear, with a real end-of-the-world vibe missing from a lot of other apocalyptic fiction, but Katherine's determination to be bright and optimistic and behave properly cuts through that in an entertaining fashion. The continent may have been consumed by a ravening horde of undead, but that's no excuse for not keeping your weapons cleaned and riding a horse in an appropriate manner for a lady.

Ireland continues to further her successes from Dread Nation: there is some excellent action, some good character arcs and development, and some great use of the premise to explore issues of Civil War and Reconstruction-era racism and resentment (no matter how insane that is in the face of a much bigger, all-consuming threat). She also provides some great zombie action (no easy thing for a foe this overexposed and tired), and the interesting idea of being able to create an inoculation against the undead, raising the bizarre idea of maybe people and zombies could just coexist?

Unfortunately, the book's structure provides its biggest weakness: the move from being a direct continuation of the fall of Summerland to a much larger-scaled story involving travelling to and across California feels a little jarring, and the action in the latter half of the novel, including some very major character beats as they find things they've been looking for since the opening of the first book, feels very compressed. I get the impression, accurate or not, that this could have been a trilogy with the two halves of the novel each serving as its own book. Instead, compressing the two distinct stories into one novel makes things feel a bit too rushed, especially in the rear half.

Still, Deathless Divide (****) is a worthy follow-up to its forebear, being entertaining, well-written and thought-provoking whilst delivering good action. It just feels like the story could have been improved with a little bit more room to breathe.

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