April Daniels’ debut novel, Dreadnought, opened a fresh new young adult superhero series. I don’t normally like superhero series, but I really liked this one—it grabbed you by the throat and didn’t let go.
Sovereign is Dreadnought’s sequel. It has the same verve and energy as Dreadnought, but instead of being, essentially, Danny Tozer’s origin story as the superhero Dreadnought, it shows her facing the difficulties of working as a superhero with limited support—either physical or emotional. She’s protecting her home city of New Port pretty much on her own even though she’s still a minor; her parents are transphobic assholes who kicked her out of their house; her mentor, Doc Impossible, is an android who is also an alcoholic; she’s grown apart from her friend Calamity; she has had to retain a lawyer and publicist; and New Port’s only other resident superhero, Graywytch, is a transphobic gender essentialist “radical feminist” who really hates Danny for being trans and wants Danny either dead or no longer a superhero—preferably both.
That’s where Danny’s problems begin. But pretty soon, she’s run afoul of a new billionaire supervillain calling himself Sovereign. Sovereign’s power is the ability to suppress other superheroes’ powers. And because he’s a billionaire, he’s been able to invest in research—he has succeeded in suppressing powers remotely, and is working on a system that will suppress all superpowers globally. Apart from his partisans, of course—people who believe that democracy is a weakness, that the wrong sort of people are getting superpowers, and that the world would be a better, more orderly place if Sovereign was in charge.
He’s also working on a way to remove superpowers from the superpowered, against their will, in order to transfer them to people of his choosing. And when Danny falls into his hands, she finds herself nightmarishly subject to his attempts to take the powers of Dreadnought away from her—to render her both unpowered and in a body that’s painfully at odds with her gender—and nightmarishly subject to Graywytch, who is Sovereign’s ally, at least where Danny is concerned.
Even when her friends and allies come to her rescue—Calamity, Doc Impossible, Danny’s former schoolmate Charlie (who’s a magician), and genderqueer superhero Kinetiq—Danny still has to contend with Sovereign using Graywytch and the legal system against her. Her battles range from the courtroom to low earth orbit and even into another dimension, and Danny has to decide what kind of person she’s going to be: the kind of person who uses lethal force to take revenge because it feels right and no one can stop her, or the kind of person who is guided by the rule of law?
The problem of the “Nemesis,” introduced in Dreadnought, is explained a little further and comes into play here in interesting ways. Nemesis is at once an explanation for why superhuman powers exist, a threat to their future, and a potential state change for the entire human species, raising questions that I expect Daniels will address more completely in a later volume.
Sovereign is a very good book. While its tight thriller-pacing occasionally stumbles—due to packing so much in—and while Daniels’ characterisation here is not quite as vividly drawn as in Dreadnought, it’s still an extremely compelling narrative. It is particularly compelling about the ways in which the violence of her job is scarring Danny, and how the fact that Danny’s under incredible amounts of pressure (and enjoys violence) is exacerbating the damage her abusive parents—especially her father—did to her mental health. The narrative is told from Danny’s point of view, so the reader only gradually comes to realise that even though Danny enjoys being a superhero, it’s probably not very good for her to essentially be a child solder.
Sovereign is also a novel that, like Dreadnought, doesn’t shy away from transmisogyny and transphobia. This makes it at times painful to read: Graywytch, in particular, directs vile commentary at Danny, on top of her and Sovereign’s actions.
Danny does gather good people around her. She figures out what’s going on with her relationship to Calamity—there’s an amazing moment with Calamity’s mother—and helps Doc Impossible to deal with her addiction. For all the strife and pain that Danny and her friends go through, Sovereign remains an uplifting kind of book.
We could do with more like it.
Sovereign 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. Her first book, Sleeping With Monsters, a collection of reviews and criticism, is out now from Aqueduct Press. Find her at her blog, where she’s been known to talk about even more books thanks to her Patreon supporters. Or find her at her Twitter. She supports the work of the Irish Refugee Council and the Abortion Rights Campaign