Jane McKeene was born two days before the dead began to walk the battlefields of Gettysburg and Chancellorsville—derailing the War Between the States and changing America forever. In this new nation, safety for all depends on the work of a few, and laws like the Native and Negro Reeducation Act require certain children attend combat schools to learn to put down the dead. But there are also opportunities—and Jane is studying to become an Attendant, trained in both weaponry and etiquette to protect the well-to-do. It’s a chance for a better life for Negro girls like Jane. After all, not even being the daughter of a wealthy white Southern woman could save her from society’s expectations.
But that’s not a life Jane wants. Almost finished with her education at Miss Preston’s School of Combat in Baltimore, Jane is set on returning to her Kentucky home and doesn’t pay much mind to the politics of the eastern cities, with their talk of returning America to the glory of its days before the dead rose. But when families around Baltimore County begin to go missing, Jane is caught in the middle of a conspiracy, one that finds her in a desperate fight for her life against some powerful enemies. And the restless dead, it would seem, are the least of her problems.
When the bodies of the dead come back and attack people, the fighting in the Civil War stops. What doesn’t stop is the racism that was inherent in the United States. Now, 20 years after the shamblers first appeared, black children are taken and trained for combat duty.
The system replicates the hierarchy of slavery. “Better” girls are trained in elite schools to be bodyguards to wealthy white women. They guard them from shamblers and serve as chaperones as the white ladies socialize. Other girls end up working in the fields clearing shamblers as they approach towns. Those people don’t have a long life span.
For me the story got most interesting when Jane and some companions are sent west to a planned community run by a pastor and his son, the sheriff. Everything is set up for the safety and protection of white families but it is all run on the forced labor of black people. The white overseers are so terrified of their black charges that they deliberately undermine their ability to fight shamblers by not giving them adequate weapons thus weakening the defenses of the whole town. They won’t listen to the advice and expertise of black women until it is literally life or death.
This book didn’t interest me as a zombie/horror story. It was at its best when showing off the absurdities of racism. From phrenology to tell who is white and who is black to medical experimentation on unwilling black people to unequal distribution of assets this book highlights many aspects of systemic racism by placing them in a fantasy setting where people should be more interested in working together for survival than upholding an arbitrary hierarchy.
The first thing you’re going to want to know about me is: Am I a boy, or am I a girl?
Riley Cavanaugh is many things: Punk rock. Snarky. Rebellious. And gender fluid. Some days Riley identifies as a boy, and others as a girl. The thing is…Riley isn’t exactly out yet. And between starting a new school and having a congressman father running for reelection in uber-conservative Orange County, the pressure—media and otherwise—is building up in Riley’s so-called “normal” life.
On the advice of a therapist, Riley starts an anonymous blog to vent those pent-up feelings and tell the truth of what it’s REALLY like to be a gender fluid teenager. But just as Riley’s starting to settle in at school—even developing feelings for a mysterious outcast—the blog goes viral, and an unnamed commenter discovers Riley’s real identity, threatening exposure. Riley must make a choice: walk away from what the blog has created—a lifeline, new friends, a cause to believe in—or stand up, come out, and risk everything.
Riley is a congressman’s child in a conservative part of California. The congressman is pushing for educational reform so Riley is taken out of private school and put in a public one for the first time. First day jitters are worse because Riley is gender fluid and is unsure of how to present on the first day of school. Within minutes of arriving at school, Riley overhears people guessing, “Is that a boy or a girl?” and one person decides to use “It” instead of any pronoun.
As part of Riley’s therapy after a suicide attempt, the psychologist recommends starting a blog. The second post goes viral. (Yeah, right.) Riley becomes an online star and eventually is outed publicly. It is a huge problem because Riley’s parents didn’t know.
An interesting aspect of the book is that the gender that Riley was assigned at birth is never stated. The author never uses any pronouns to refer to Riley. I’m extra impressed by this because it was hard to write this review without pronouns, let alone a whole book. (Some reviews I’ve read have taken issue with this because pronouns are a difficult part of life for some people.)
This is a very character driven novel. Riley and friends are the focus more than the plot. Bec is a new friend at school. She’s a social outcast and she’s in a band. She befriends Riley and becomes a potential love interest. Solo is a former outcast turned athlete who befriends Riley. This causes tension with his friends on the football team.
There is a lot of violence and abuse hurled at Riley in the book. Several characters have either committed suicide or have attempted.
Symptoms of Being Human does a great job of introducing gender fluidity to an audience who may not be familiar with the term. The author is not gender fluid but obviously did a lot of research into the subject. I’ve only seen one review by a person who identified as being gender fluid on Goodreads and that was a positive review for the book. The feel of this book reminds me a lot of None of the Above. The intent of the book is to educate on the subject. Large information dumps don’t bother me at all but some people get annoyed by it.
I think this book is a good one for people to read especially if they aren’t familiar with gender fluidity. Riley has a unique voice and perspective on the world.
Reading this book contributed to these challenges: