Dreadnought — April Daniels

Cover of Dreadnought

Dreadnought / Sovereign
April Daniels
280 pages
published in 2017

A trans girl rescues a superhero, inherits his power and gets a magical transition in the process. And all she wanted to do was buy some nail polish.

Dreadnought was the world greatest’s superhero. Danielle “Danny” Tozer is just a trans girl who still has to deal with all the same problems as she did yesterday, only now with added supervillain threats. Her father is still abusive, her mother still compliant in his abuse and Danny knows she cannot expect either of them to accept her as she really is. Worse, though she now has the body she always dreamed about, she’s still the same, insecure, cowed fifteen year old girl inside, largely unable to stand up for herself against her father. There’s no way she could let them know what happened to her, apart from the unmissable fact that she’s now a woman both inside and out.

Things aren’t looking that much better on the superhero side of things. Danny isn’t the first one to inherit Dreadnought’s mantle, but the previous ones were all cishet men and his old superhero team, the Legion Pacifica seems less than eager to welcome her to their ranks, or acknowledge her as his successor. Worse, one of them, Graywytch, reveals herself to be an out and out transphobe, a trans-exclusionary radical feminist with a chip on her shoulder about trans women especially. All hope for support and understanding from them is quickly undermined in their first meeting, leaving Danny to face her family as well as the supervillain that killed the previous Dreadnought on her own.

Luckily there’s Calamity, a socalled graycape, an unsanctioned vigilante who makes her money hunting criminals. She was there when Danny transformed and she manages to track Danny down to invite her to go caping together. Calamity is the only one who accepts her unreservedly, both as a woman and as Dreadnought. And whereas Danny was a bit of a superhero fangirl, Calamity’s family history make her much more cynical about the whitecape world. The same age as Danny, she’s her ideal guide to the realities of superheroing. Not to mention the realities of being a teenage girl.

Much of Dreadnought, especially the first half, is devoted to Danny coming to grip with her transition and how her family, friends and school respond to it, rather than to superheroing. Thanks to her father’s abuse, Danny has very low self esteem and finally having the right body doesn’t change that, especially in the face of her father’s insistence on “curing” her. The abuse and constant misgendering by her family as well as Graywytch are hard to read through and I can imagine it would be much worse for an actual trans reader. Nevertheless I’m glad Dreadnought doesn’t gloss over the realities of transphobia and the difficulties of coming out as trans, understands that a bodily transition is only one part of it and even a magical, neigh-perfect transition will still leave you needing to deal with all the other aspects of transitioning.

The most difficult part of writing a superhero novel must be writing good superhero fight scenes, but Dreadnought delivers once the action starts to ramp up in the second half of the novel. Danny and Calamity not only go caping together, but actively go hunting for Utopia, the supervillain who killed the previous Dreadnought. Shit hits the fan when they actually do and ultimately it’s up to Danny to finally claim the mantle of Dreadnought and save the world.

I tore through Dreadnought in just a few hours after reading James Nicoll’s review, almost as fast the second time when I reread it after having read Sovereign, the sequel. I like Daniels’ writing, I like Danny and Calamity and I hope this gets more sequels.

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