Superheroes with Substance: Dreadnought by April Daniels

This book, guys. This book. I’ve said before—I keep saying—I’m not normally a fan of superhero narratives, and then I find an exception that grabs me by the throat and makes me love it.

Dreadnought is one of those exceptions. April Daniels is a debut author, but this is a very accomplished debut, one that bids fair to open a promising career. Dreadnought builds a world that strongly resembles our own, except for the presence of superheroes, and casually drops in little nuggets of worldbuilding: why the US government doesn’t control American superheroes, why superheroes don’t police the government, political differences among superpowered individuals (or individuals with “special abilities”) and the spectrum of “capes” from white through grey to black. It’s the kind of worldbuilding that many superhero stories pass lightly over, but its presence in Dreadnought makes the world feel substantial, makes the world feel real, and allows me to enter fully into caring about the characters that inhabit it.

Foremost among them the main character and the girl from whose point of view the novel is told, teenager Danny Tozer. Dreadnought, the world’s greatest superhero falls out of the sky and dies at her feet, and she inherits the mantle that carries his powers. And the first thing the mantle does, in addition to giving her superstrength, near-invulnerability, and the ability to fly, is transform her into her ideal body.

(Content warning for anti-trans bigotry directed at Danny by other characters.)

Danny is trans, and until she inherited Dreadnought’s mantle, she was in the closet about it. No one knew: not her father, determined to make a “man” of her; not her mother; not her best friend. But with her body now the way she always knew it should be, there’s no hiding the fact she’s a girl.

The local superhero organisation, the Legion Pacifica, is swift to find out and try to draw Danny into their ranks. But while some members are supportive—the chain-smoking scientist-engineer Doc Impossible, who steals every scene she’s in, and the warrior Valkyrja among them—others are much less so. At least one of them is a TERF who tells Danny, “you reify the holocaust of gender, you invade my sex, and you poison my sisters by your simple presence. You cannot possibly understand what it means to be a woman, and you rape us all when you try.”

This is perhaps the most explicit (and most explicitly ridiculous) instance of anti-trans bigotry portrayed on the pages of the novel. It’s not the only one: Danny’s former best friend turns on her completely when she refuses to date him, and her father repeatedly denies her gender identity, and belittles, abuses, and insults her. Even her mother tells her that she wants her “son back.”

Many superhero origin stories are, in terms of their narrative arcs, about coming of age. Danny comes of age and comes into her powers in a world that wants to deny her the right to exist as her true self, and the people that in a reasonable world she ought to be able to look to for support and validation—her parents, most of her fellow superheroes, her former best friend—instead turn on her. Not for her superpowers—they want to use her superpowers, when they know about them—but for being who she is. Danny has to grow into a hero very nearly on her own.

Not quite. The aforementioned Doc Impossible provides moral and technological support, while Danny’s new friend Sarah—who moonlights as a vigilante in the guise of Calamity Jane—introduces her into the mysteries of fighting crime—and supervillains.

Because the supervillain who killed Dreadnought is still out there. Her name’s Utopia, and Danny and Sarah are determined to bring her to justice. But when they finally do come face-to-face with her, they discover that Utopia’s plans may put all of humanity at risk—and that something worse is out there, too.

I really loved this novel. The voice is great. The characters are brilliant—seriously, Daniels has a really deft touch with making individuals stand out—and the pacing is on the nose. It’s tight, with a tension that rises to the final confrontations: both Danny’s personal showdown with her parents, and the superhero-supervillain confrontations across the novel’s climax. And it has consequences: it doesn’t ignore human pain and human suffering, and what happens when people get caught up in confrontations where they’re punching well outside their weight class.

It’s incredibly fun and incredibly good. And I’m really looking forward to the next book in the series (Sovereign, forthcoming this year) to find out what’s next for Danny.

Read this book. I recommend it.

Dreadnought is available from Diversion Publishing.

Liz Bourke is a cranky queer person who reads books. She holds a Ph.D in Classics from Trinity College, Dublin. Find her at her blog. Or her Twitter. She supports the work of the Irish Refugee Council and the Abortion Rights Campaign.

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