Review of Sovereign by April Daniels
by April Daniels
April Daniels might single-handedly be restoring my faith in superhero fiction.
Spoilers for the first book but not this one, unless you think revealing that Graywytch is still a massive problem for Danny is a spoiler, in which case … oops. Keep reading, then? :P
I love the idea of superhero fiction, but most of the actual superhero novels I’ve read so far have been underwhelming at best. It turns out that this is a subgenre quite difficult to pull off, in terms of plot and characterization. I tend to cite Vanessa Torline’s “#TrainFightTuesday” as my gold standard for what I’d like my superhero fiction to be: fast-paced and genre-savvy yet also cutting and compassionate. With Dreadnought, Daniels fulfilled most of these requirements, plus she did it with a teenage trans lesbian protagonist. So I pre-ordered Sovereign and, although moving into my very own house was a good distraction, waited eagerly for it to arrive days after its release (so far Chapters is beating Amazon at this pre-order game). That was your warning, by the way, that I’m a head-over-heels fan of this series and it’s seriously colouring my critical gaze.
Daniels does a great job clearing the first hurdle with a sequel: how to catch up new readers without forcing existing fans to sit through chapters of “as you know, Bob” exposition. Sovereign drops nuggets of information about Danny’s genesis in Dreadnought and her ultimate conflict with Utopia throughout the novel. It opens with Danny going to a bi-annual cape convention in Antarctica (!!!), where she muses a lot on how the past few months have changed everything for her. Soon, though, her time at the convention is cut short and she has to make a quick orbital hop (!!) back to New Port to save the day and show the readers what it means to be Dreadnought.
You get just enough information to help you make sense of Danny’s immediate situation—she’s Dreadnought, transgender, and had a trial-by-fire in the last book that led to her learning about a cloud of exotic matter called Nemesis that might be problematic in the future. Other relevant details, such as Danny’s relationships with Doc Impossible and Sarah/Calamity, or the fact that she is a minor and in a legal battle to escape her abusive parents, emerge naturally over the course of the book. It seldom feels forced—sometimes Danny’s internal monologue can get a little too explainy, but I can rationalize this as her just nerding out so much over superheroes and superpowers, etc.
Sovereign, even more so than the first book, really showcases how much work Daniels has put in to reifying a world where some humans have superpowers. And I’m not just talking about how she explains the origins of superpowers, with just enough handwaving to make it fun but not so much it becomes too silly—I’m talking about how a society with superpowered humans would have to adjust its practices. Whitecapes worry about getting licenses and bystander insurance. Entire industries have sprung up around the idea of superheroes (and supervillains), industries that cater to the capes themselves or to the people affected by them. Daniels doesn’t just give us a “what if this world plus superpowers”; she delivers a “what if this were a world with superpowers”. There’s a moment later on in the book where Danny mentions something, just sort of offhandedly, but it kind of blows my mind in an oooohh-of-course-it-would-work-like-that kind of way. (Can I remember what that is now, over a week later? No. That’s why you need to write your reviews right after you finish the book, Ben.)
Daniels also steps up her plot game here. That’s not to dis Dreadnought, which has a pretty bombastic plot. But there are even more moving parts here, and in general, I also think the pacing has improved. We get a massive climactic battle sequence that would look so good in the movie or TV adaptation (cough, ahem)—but then the book still isn’t over, because wait, there’s a second plot for Danny to foil! This kind of bait-and-switch can easily backfire, but it works here because Daniels foreshadows it for basically the entire book, so it isn’t all that surprising.
Although Sovereign contains a hefty dose of the same humour I loved in the first book, it also deals with very heavy issues. Doc Impossible is not doing well after Utopia hijacked her. And Danny loves the power that being Dreadnought gives her, loves fighting the blackcapes—loves it, in fact, too much. She knows this, but she also can’t stop—not when there is a city to protect. Nevertheless, the power of Dreadnought can’t help her with media relations, the fight to emancipate herself from her parents, or her relationship with Sarah. In the time elapsed between books, Danny and Sarah drifted apart as the former shoulders the caping load of the defunct League and the latter recovers from losing an arm and adjusts to using a prosthesis. Sovereign, in many ways, is about how these two figure out their relationship now that both are veteran capes instead of wannabes playing at the gig.
There are so many other excellent character moments I’d love to mention. Suffice it to say, Daniels makes sure the minor characters get a chance to shine too.
Graywytch is back as a principal antagonist, and in a big, big, big way. Although the stakes are great for this, both on a personal level and for the world at large, Graywytch herself might be my least favourite part of this series. She is just so one-dimensional in her TERFiness. Like, it is absolutely chilling to read her characterization and see the way she twists and misrepresents everything Danny is. But there is no grey-ness to Graywytch’s character. Villains might be Daniels’ biggest weakness, in my opinion, because neither the other antagonist (the eponymous Sovereign) nor the previous book’s Utopia impressed me all that much. In all three cases, Daniels creates amazing existential crises for Danny et al to resolve, but the people she puts on the face of these crises are not as interesting or complex.
Fortunately, these are anomalies in a book that is otherwise deep and impressive on so many levels. It shouldn’t be a big deal that the main character is a trans woman (but I guess it is). What’s more important is how Daniels navigates the expectations that might surface because of the lack of representation. Very early in the book, Danny is quick to acknowledge that she still has a lot of privileges as a result of her skin colour, conventional attractiveness, and the immediate cachet of the Dreadnought mantle. She does this while letting us in a little fuck-up of hers:
Being genderqueer is hard. Being Iranian-American is hard. Being a superhero without a steady paying gig is also hard. Kinetiq had been swimming upstream for years to be all of those at the same time, and the credit for what should have been their big breakthrough, their first headlining victory, ended up getting handed to me by default. Why? Because I’m a pretty white girl with an easy-to-understand narrative.
Yes, Sovereign includes a supporting character who is a non-binary superhero with they/them pronouns! And although the above passage also serves to deepen the world of capes and show us Danny’s fallibility, being new to this all, Daniels is very intentionally acknowledging that, while trans women suffer oppression and visibility issues, trans people of colour, and non-binary trans people, are marginalized and erased in ways that white trans people don’t experience.
Danny’s flaws, her impulsiveness and aggression, are a core part of my enjoyment of this series. A superhero is only as good as their weaknesses—and I’m not talking about Dreadnought’s susceptibility to electricity. It’s tempting to excuse a lot of Danny’s mistakes on her youth, or on how growing up in a negligent and abusive environment has affected her temperament, but it’s so much more than that. It’s how being Dreadnought is changing her, how the stress of the job is changing her, and how her own unease over her changes is … well, changing her. Basically, what I’m trying to say is that for a book with an awful lot of fight scenes and superheroics, there is also a fair amount of introspection.
Danny Tozer is an awesome protagonist (I will fight you IRL), but it’s her interactions with the rest of the cast that really sells this book. The dialogue is so witty, and the relationship drama is just one gut punch after another. There’s a scene towards the end between Danny and Doc Impossible, who is struggling with alcoholism, and it is the culmination of everything that went on for the rest of the book, and I just teared up.
Sovereign is everything Dreadnought was and better. It punts “middle book syndrome” into orbit and then watches it burn up in re-entry. I loved the ending. I think it’s perfect. It’s gutsy, with that much carnage and devastation—but when you are writing your own superhero series, why not go big? This isn’t a shared universe! And, most importantly, it leaves me wanting more. So much more. I would read another ten books, easy (no pressure, April); Danny is Harry-Dresden levels of fun for me. But I’ll settle for a third book in a year or so (puppy dog eyes).