Is there a name for the situation where you keep thinking you like a certain genre, but you’re almost unfailingly critical of every book in that genre you read? That’s me and the superhero novel. I want to like superhero novels, desperately. Superheroes fascinate me. But most superhero novels I’ve read don’t quite capture whatever ineffable quality of superheroics that I’m looking for. (To be fair, I also don’t read superhero comics or watch much superhero television/movies, Supergirl aside, so maybe I’m just delusional.) So I end up reading superhero novels and then feeling let down, and it’s not entirely the fault of those books.
Turns out that Dreadnought, by April Daniels, is the superhero novel I’ve been waiting for.
Small disclaimer the first: I applied and was approved for this book through NetGalley, but by the time the approval came through my pre-order copy of the book showed up, so I read the hard copy anyway. If you would like to send me free copies of books I’ve pre-ordered in time for me to read the physical copy anyway, hit me with up with a private message. I swear, one day I’ll figure out how to NetGalley properly.
Small disclaimer the second:
I am cisgender, so my opinions are biased from that perspective. Here are some reviews by trans, non-binary, and multigender writers for your consideration: Nicole Field, Polenth Blake, Cheryl Morgan, Morgan Doherty, and Avery (thanks to this blog post for the heads up). They’ve given me some good food-for-thought regarding the explanations behind Danny’s transformation, and some problematic ableist moments, but have also reaffirmed my conclusion that this is a kickass superhero novel with a fantastic sense of humour.
So Danny Tozer is a transgender girl who is hiding her identity from her family (and everyone else), barely surviving by expressing herself by painting her toenails in secret. Dreadnought, arguably the world’s most powerful superhero—superheroes are just a thing in this universe—dies in front of her, and she inherits his “mantle” of powers. In addition to giving Danny superpowers, the mantle also transforms her body so that it matches her internal gender identity. You can imagine that her family isn’t too thrilled about this, and while Danny is ecstatic by the change, it has numerous consequences she spends the rest of the novel learning to deal with.
I was looking forward to Dreadnought just from the description (which is what motivated me to pre-order the book just after finding out about it). I didn’t expect it to be so funny. It’s Daniels’ humour that first made me suspect I’d be giving this book five stars:
“Shove that up your butt.”
“It’s for science.”
“You are going to buy me pizza.”
“A lot of pizza.”
I don’t visualize things when I read, right? So long, florid descriptions of characters and scenes and battle sequences leave little impression on me. But snappy dialogue between Danny and Doc Impossible? Yes, please! I’ll take me some more of that.
The thing is, this humour is a necessary tonic to what might otherwise be interpreted as an often bleak, very difficult read for someone who has gone through experiences similar to Danny’s. On the one hand, you have Doc Impossible, who is supportive and intersectional as shit:
“I guess I just thought I was finally a real girl.”
“Hey! None of that!” She takes me by the shoulders. “You think it’s a uterus that makes a woman? Bullshit. You feel like you’re a girl, you live it, it’s part of you? Then you’re a girl. That’s the end of it, no quibbling. You’re as real a girl as anyone. An you really need to learn to express your anger better.”
On the other hand, there are numerous characters who represent that difficulty of existing as an openly trans person, even one who has superpowers. Danny constantly gets misgendered, from her family to her best friend to another superhero, Graywytch, who is a strident TERF from the get-go. Dreadnought comes about as close as I can possibly get to understanding how the constant microagression of misgendering can be wearing and debilitating for someone. And Daniels makes it clear that even though Danny lucked out and side-stepped the whole transition quandary and now also has superpowers, none of this solves the institutional transphobia of our society.
Indeed, Daniels portrays the whole “teenager suddenly finds herself with near-invincible superpowers” extremely … well, realistic is not the correct word—believably, I guess? In the world of Dreadnought, people with powers (metahumans, is the term) are actually fairly common, though only a small proportion of them have the juice and desire to become “capes”. Inheriting the Dreadnought mantle pretty much guarantees Danny a spot at the cape table—when she turns eighteen. Until then, she gets stuck in the kiddie zone—and she does not like that at all. So after being told not to go caping on the side, you better believe that’s exactly what she does. Teenagers, eh?
There are times when I groaned a little at the way Danny and Sarah handled their independent little investigation. Sometimes it seems like they make choices simply because it is better for the plot that way. Still, I very much enjoyed the relationship between Danny and Sarah. I can appreciate how Daniels characterizes Danny not just as trans but a lesbian, and that her feelings for Sarah are a complicated mixture of admiration, awe, and attraction—but I’m also glad that Daniels resists the urge to make this anywhere near a straightforward romance. Danny has enough going as it is to mix love into the equation.
Danny and Sarah are great, though. I love the backstory Daniels gives Sarah, and that Sarah (who is Black) calls Danny out on her white privilege even while being supportive of her trans identity. Sarah provides essential emotional support, rooting for Danny to take on the name as well as the mantle of Dreadnought—but she is also hotheaded, impulsive, too quick to action; Danny offers a great, more contemplative counterbalance. This dynamic works really well, and I can’t wait to see what happens with them in the next book.
Really, the relationships between Danny and most of the characters in this book are just so good. Take her parents, for instance. In addition to being transphobic, Danny’s father is just outright abusive. He promotes an unrealistic standard of macho/hyper-masculinity that Danny can’t conform to, even if she were a boy. Transgender issues aside, this is a household that is not a safe or nurturing environment for any kid. And Danny’s mom, while much less overt, is not any more supportive. I hit page 187, and my heart pretty much broke:
Mom leans back in her chair. "It wasn't so bad, was it? You were growing up so well."
"It was torture! You know what I was doing when Dreadnought--when that supervillain attacked me?" I don't believe it. It's like she's wilfully misunderstanding it. They never take my word for it; why can't they take my word for it? "I was painting my toenails behind the mall because that's the only way I could keep sane. Does that seem normal to you, Mom? Does that seem healthy?"
"I just ... I don't see you as a girl," she says. "Even now, even looking like that. You were going to be such a fine young--"
"I was going to die." The pencil snaps between my fingers, one end cartwheeling off across the table and onto the floor. "And I am a girl. Even if you don't see it."
There is so much to unpack here. The pain, and the anger, and the way once again Danny has to restrain herself from letting it break to the surface now that she has so much strength. This exchange really drives home something we cisgender people often forget about the experience of being transgender, namely, that the constant misgendering, erasure, and transphobia is literally killing transgender people. Moreover, this quote, and similar moments throughout the book, drive home the self-doubt and misplaced guilt that Danny herself feels about her gender identity. She has internalized a lot of her parents’ disappointment in her gender expression, and while she has no intention of reversing what the Dreadnought mantle has wrought, it doesn’t change her lived experience. I know that some people, both trans and cis, have pointed out the handwaving convenience of Danny’s transition into literally a Superhot Superwoman, and they have a point. That being said, Daniels doesn’t miss a chance to remind us that this doesn’t magically take away Danny’s pain.
So far I’ve just been talking about the characters in this book and not so much about the superhero plot. Keep in mind that Dreadnought is less than 300 pages—there is a lot of character development going on here for a slim book!
The superhero story is no less impressive than the characterization. As I alluded to above, Danny strikes out on her own while mulling over how much of a superhero she actually wants to be, and whether she can affiliate herself with the Legion Pacifica when they talk down to her and host a TERF. She and Sarah go after Utopia, murderer of the previous Dreadnought, together. The way Daniels works this plot in parallel to Danny’s adjustment to her changes in her plainclothes life is quite deft. There’s some good investigation here, combined with plenty of action. Daniels is careful not to make Danny too overpowered, and I love the descriptions of how Danny sees/uses Dreadnought’s abilities. The disagreements that Danny and Sarah have regarding the best ways to proceed are nice philosophical diversions, too.
And then we hit the climax, and the rest of this book is just explosive.
Danny takes on some challenging bad guys and engages in her first real, big Dreadnought-level challenge. And then she goes to the Legion Tower, and without spoiling anything, let’s just say that Daniels manages to utterly devastate us. I kind of predicted a few of the twists, thanks I’ll say to foreshadowing much earlier in the book, but some of them were new. And the level of … carnage … is impressive. If you’re thinking about reading this book but are holding off only because you want to know if it contains a nail-biting, race-against-the-clock, down-to-the-wire finale … then yes, yes it does.
So buckle up, because this book starts off strong and just keeps getting better. Seriously, after the intense climax, the last two pages still manage to beat that for pure emotional drama. Let’s just say that Danny pulls a Tony Stark in Iron Man, and it’s more of a Crowning Moment of Awesome than anything else she does in this entire book—and that includes saving an airplane single-handedly or, you know, saving the whole world from a cyborg supervillain with delusions of godhead.
Dreadnought is a debut novel. It’s not perfect. But it’s finally a superhero novel I can not only enjoy but adore. My major criticism is that it is too short, and that having read it so soon after its release I now have to wait far too long to read the sequel. I can’t wait to learn what Daniels has next in store for Danny, Sarah, the Doc, et al, both in terms of the threat of Nemesis and Danny’s newfound fame. Because this is not just a positive portrayal of a transgender lesbian superhero who saves the world, but it’s just the beginning. And I can only hope there are teens out there who read this and see that they, too, can be heroes.