Would the rise of zombies have derailed the Civil War? Justina Ireland thinks so. Her 2018 novel Dread Nation imagines an alternate history for the U.S., one in which the “Native and Negro Reeducation Act requires certain children attend combat schools” in the apocalyptic aftermath. The result is a thrilling YA saga following Jane McKeene, a teen who is trained to protect the wealthy from the undead.
The sequel, Deathless Divide, picks up immediately after the first book. And based on the description, it sounds like another thrilling epic (spoilers for Dread Nation ahead):
After the fall of Summerland, Jane McKeene hoped her life would get simpler: Get out of town, stay alive, and head west to California to find her mother. But nothing is easy when you’re a girl trained in putting down the restless dead, and a devastating loss on the road to a protected village called Nicodemus has Jane questioning everything she thought she knew about surviving in 1880s America.
What’s more, this safe haven is not what it appears—as Jane discovers when she sees familiar faces from Summerland amid this new society. Caught between mysteries and lies, the undead, and her own inner demons, Jane soon finds herself on a dark path of blood and violence that threatens to consume her.
But she won’t be in it alone.
Katherine Deveraux never expected to be allied with Jane McKeene. But after the hell she has endured, she knows friends are hard to come by—and that Jane needs her too, whether Jane wants to admit it or not. Watching Jane’s back, however, is more than she bargained for, and when they both reach a breaking point, it’s up to Katherine to keep hope alive—even as she begins to fear that there is no happily-ever-after for girls like her.
Balzer + Bray will release Deathless Divide on February 4th, but you can start reading today! We’re excited to share an exclusive excerpt from the novel as well as a note from Ireland to her readers.
“How do you keep the zombie apocalypse interesting?” Ireland asks. “Isn’t that the question we all stay up until late in the night pondering? Okay, maybe not, but it is one of the many questions I constantly struggle with. How to keep things fresh! And interesting! And exciting! But with characters who feel real and flawed and stories that surprise.”
“That is, in a nutshell, what it means to be a writer. We spend far too many hours thinking and considering and rethinking our story choices (or, rather, we should). But sometimes that means a sequel takes far longer than we want to write, and people have to wait for a very long time to read it. Which is why I am so happy to finally share this excerpt of Deathless Divide, the sequel to Dread Nation.”
“I hope you find it worth the wait.”
Check out the first chapter below, and click here if you’d like to pre-order the novel.
(That’s an affiliate link from Bookshop.org. If you click through and purchase a book, both Paste and independent bookstores will receive a small commission.)
Chapter 1: In Which Our Sequel Begins
It’s a curious thing, to watch a town fall to the dead.
Usually, you only discover a place that’s been overrun after the fact: hollowed-out buildings full of shamblers, broken windows marked with the blood of fleeing occupants, scattered ephemera, cups and combs and bottles, the small things that people drop in the midst of headlong flight. It’s an eerie sight, the aftermath of a shambler attack, but it’s an echo of the horrors, not the actual carnage.
Seeing it in action? Well, that’s something I’d hoped never to bear witness to.
And yet I’m actually enjoying watching an ocean of undead overwhelm Summerland.
The dead are too far off for me to smell them, but the sound of their moans carries on the hot summer air to where I stand. The buildings of town are matchboxes; the dead are ants swarming all around. I ain’t never seen so many shamblers in one place, and I can’t help but wonder if this is what it looked like when the dead first rose in the midst of the Battle of Gettysburg, back in 1863.
I turn. Katherine stands nearby, her arms crossed. Even in the midst of running for our lives, she is beautiful. Her golden skin is flushed, and a few tawny curls have escaped her updo to blow in the wind, her eyes as blue as the hot summer sky. The bonnet she wears should look homely, a fashion relic, but on her it’s lovely, if a bit blood-spattered. You might not know Katherine was a Negro from looking at her—she’s that light—but there is a dusky hue to her skin that belies the truth.
“Do you think Gideon made it out?” I ask. Gideon Carr, a boy about whom I have entirely too many opinions, was nowhere to be found as we escaped. And even though the boy ain’t my problem…with his muddy hazel eyes, pale skin, and tousled curls, I kind of want him to be. Which is hard to contend with, since nothing of consequence can come from any such feelings.
“Gideon is resourceful,” Katherine says, an answer that ain’t an answer, “like Ida, your acquaintance from the Summerland patrol. I am certain she was able to see to matters and cleared out before the dead could complicate escape. But we have dawdled long enough. The wagon with the others is going to be out of sight soon, and we should get moving. The restless dead are not going to stay within the town forever.”
Katherine is a bit of a nag, and usually all of her bossiness puts me into a provocative mood. But today I am feeling quite fine, since we have survived a near slaughter, rid the world of some particularly unsavory characters, and found our freedom all in the same fell swoop.
We stopped here because I wanted to take one last look at Summerland, the hellhole where I nearly lost myself. The town had been a Survivalist utopia founded by an unholy minister and lorded over by his sheriff son—a town where Negroes had been put in their place, which was in brutal service to the well-to-do white folks that had come to make it their home. It had been hell, but I’d survived. All that effort, however, had been driven by a single thought: that I had a place to go when all was said and done. Rose Hill Plantation, my childhood home.
Now, from the letter I grip in my hand, the last one my mother had tried to send to me, I know that to be false. I’ve got nothing now but a dream of a faraway place—California—and the hope of finding my beloved Momma and, more importantly, Aunt Aggie. I ain’t seen either of them since Rose Hill Plantation, and my letter-writing campaign was thwarted by Miss Anderson, one of the most vile people ever born and an instructor at Katherine’s and my alma mater, Miss Preston’s School of Combat for Negro Girls.
But that was all then, and this is now. Momma’s last note says California is where she was headed, but that don’t mean much in these end times. The question that matters more: Is she even alive? And what about Aunt Aggie, the woman that mostly raised me up? What do I do if she’s gone to the great beyond?
It’s too much to consider in one go. Before I can answer any of those questions, I have to keep surviving today.
“Yeah, okay, let’s go,” I say.
“Would you mind relacing my corset before we set out?” Katherine asks, pointing to her back. “Not too tight. Just enough to give me a little bit of security.”
I manage not to roll my eyes, but just barely. “I don’t know what it is about you and corsets,” I mutter, but oblige her request anyway. On the way out of town I’d cut the lacings to the contraption so that Katherine would have a bit more range of motion with her swords. We were fleeing from the restless dead, after all. But now that the danger has passed it’s apparently time to return to a modicum of respectability. I lace and knot where necessary but leave the whole thing looser than I’d learned in my sartorial training back at Miss Preston’s.
“I suppose that will have to do,” she sniffs, and by that time the wagon with the rest of our party is far enough down the road that all we can see is the dust cloud it kicks up behind it.
It ain’t hard to follow. It makes such a creaking racket that if there are any shamblers around they’ll show themselves quickly enough. But unless it’s a horde, I ain’t worried. Jackson Keats, my sometime beau, walks beside the wagon that carries his sister, Lily, and the rest of our ragtag group. The Duchess, the former madam of Summerland’s house of ill fame and a white woman of fine moral character, sits in the back with tiny Thomas Spencer, while her girls Nessie and Sallie sit up front and drive the wagon. We are a merry band of survivors, and no one seems all that upset about leaving Summerland behind us. One day, our time there will be just another terrible memory.
“How long until we get to Nicodemus?” I ask, running up to the front, where Jackson leads the way as we walk the dusty track. We’re the only ones on the road, which makes me think anyone else who had fled Summerland must’ve taken a different route. There’d been a crossroads a little ways back, and Jackson had conferred with Sallie in a low voice before we’d continued on, taking a turn that hadn’t borne the same deep wheel marks that the other road did. At the time, I’d thought Jackson knew an alternate route, one that would leave us less open to attack, since Jackson was more familiar with the land in these parts than I am. But still, I’m a mite bit worried. Not because I don’t trust Jackson, but because I don’t like being beholden to a plan that ain’t my own.
And maybe the for-real truth is that I do have misgivings about placing my faith in Jackson. After all, once upon a time he was my beau before he decided to put me aside, and the only reason I ended up in Summerland was because we went looking for Lily and uncovered the mayor of Baltimore’s plan to build some kind of peculiar utopia out in the middle of Kansas. Now here we are, in between a whole lot of nothing and a ravenous shambler horde, with nothing but our wits and a handful of weapons. No plan, no rations, just hope.
It makes me nervous, how alone we are in the big, wide-open prairie. I don’t like feeling so exposed, like the entirety of my sins are being laid bare before that watery blue sky.
“Yeah, you and I need to talk about Nicodemus,” Jackson says, gaze steely, hand resting lightly on the revolver hanging by his side. “Not now, but once we stop for the night.” His jaw is set, and whatever warmth I might have seen in him back in Summerland has faded. Red Jack is back, ruthless and cutthroat, the boy who used to make my heart pound.
Today his attitude just annoys me.
I stop walking and pull him with me onto the side of the road, out of the path of the wagon. “What are you talking about? What’s going on in Nicodemus?”
Jackson crosses his arms. “I just said we’ll talk when we stop for the night. The town is a two-day ride, and we’re exposed out here. My words were about keeping us all safe, not an invitation to fight about it.”
“Fighting is how we get to safe, and it seems like maybe you got a plan that the rest of us should get clued in on.”
Behind Jackson, Katherine has left the wagon’s side, brows pulled together in a frown. “What’s going on?” she asks.
“Jackson says there’s something he needs to tell everyone about Nicodemus, but he wants to wait until we stop for the night. I think we need to have it out now before we get too far down the track.”
Katherine sighs. “What’s the problem with Nicodemus?”
“Nothing,” Jackson says. He takes a deep breath and then lets it out. “Your classmates from Miss Preston’s are in Nicodemus. There was just a conversation I wanted to have with Jane. Later. When there ain’t an audience.” He gestures with his head toward the wagon.
“Is something the matter?” the Duchess calls. The wagon has now passed us by and is slowly making its way down the road. I imagine the Duchess ain’t too fond of all the folks with weapons falling too far behind.
I tug Jackson by the arm and we start walking, keeping to the side of the road to avoid the worst of the dust. “Look, this ain’t the time for half stepping the truth of the matter, no matter how bleak. At some point that horde back behind us is going to be on our tail. If there’s something we should know about Nicodemus, out with it.”
Jackson sighs and rubs the back of his neck, lowering his voice. “All right, fine. The town, well…it’s a bit crowded. There was hardly enough room for the people who were there back when I left. And with the rest of the folks fleeing the horde heading there, I think it would be a better plan to not go there at all but to rather head to the eastern part of the state, make a run for Fort Riley and the Kaw River.” He presses his lips together.
I look at Katherine, and her expression of confusion mirrors my own feelings. There’s more to his decision than that, and we both know it. “What ain’t you telling us?” I ask, but Jackson just shakes his head.
“Drop it, Jane, and trust me for once, will you?” He takes off his hat and swipes away the sweat with the back of his hand before resettling it into place. His bowler is flecked with ominous-looking dark spots just like my wide-brimmed hat, and I wonder if he stole his from a dead man like I did. “There ain’t nothing worth seeing in Nicodemus. It’s just as cursed as Summerland, the same old evils prettied up with whitewash.” He takes a deep breath, lets it out, and starts walking. “It’s a Negro settlement, founded by Freedmen and runaways from the Five Civilized Tribes. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have issues. You can’t trust those Egalitarians any more than you trust the Survivalists.”
I have no doubt what Jackson is saying is true—the Egalitarians were against using colored folks to bulk up patrols and defend towns, but they were still hardheaded in their own way. The best-case scenario would be to avoid a town altogether and just strike out for California. But that’s a fool’s errand with no rations, and Jackson knows that just as well as I do.
“Runaways?” Katherine says, bringing me back to the matter at hand.
“Some of them Indians kept slaves the same as everyone else,” Jackson says, his words clipped. “Ain’t a single body in this entire cursed country that didn’t have a hand in trying to own the African.”
I shake my head, because neither the words nor the tone beneath them sound like the Jackson I know. But I got bigger problems than a bit of proselytizing. “I don’t think the Duchess or Sallie will care about going to a Negro town,” I say, deftly changing the subject. I’m pretty sure Sallie and Nessie are sweet on each other, and the Duchess was one of the few allies I had in Summerland. Gideon and Ida are both in the wind, and while I hope they made it out of Summerland safely I can’t worry about that just yet. I still haven’t saved my own miserable hide.
Jackson shrugs. “Maybe not, but we really should head east. If we skip Nicodemus altogether, we’ll have a better chance of getting to the Mississippi, and from there we can go anywhere, quickly and safely.”
“But there are Miss Preston’s girls in Nicodemus,” I say. “Sue might still be there. And Ida and the Summerland Negro patrols were planning to make their way there. If Nicodemus is crowded or compromised, we have to find them and let them know. They’ll want to come along with us. And there’s safety in numbers, especially when they know how to put down the dead.”
Katherine crosses her arms, and a look I recognize all too well comes over her face. Jackson is about to get an earful. “Jane is right. Our friends are in Nicodemus, Jackson. There is no way we could abandon them like that. It’s unconscionable.”
Jackson presses his lips together. “Since when do you have friends?” he asks me.
“What, you think there ain’t anyone I care about more than you in this world?” I shoot back. “Don’t forget why we’re in Kansas in the first place.”
“Fine,” he says, hightailing it toward the wagon. Katherine and I exchange a glance.
“What got into him?” she asks.
I shrug, and jog to catch up to where Jackson is stopping the wagon.