Dreadnought by April Daniels

Cover of April Daniel's Dreadnought, showing the silhouette of the main character with a cape as she faces the city skyline.
Text in the top left: "Daniels spins a classic coming-of-age superhero tale, but one that also tackles transmisogyny and sexism, as its young hero navigates what she owes the world and what she owes herself." -Entertainment Weekly
Text on the bottom: Dreadnought | Nemesis - Book One | April Daniels

I think most people dream of waking up with super powers at least once in their lives; that’s why, when reading April Daniels’ Dreadnought, I was so excited about its trans heroine. In a world where superheroes are the norm, Danielle Tozer, a trans girl, is gifted the abilities of Dreadnought, the most powerful superhero in history. The powers even change her body into her ideal, letting her outwardly present as the woman she is. There are only two problems: 1) she got this transformative power when Dreadnought was killed by an up-and-coming super villain, and 2) she has to navigate her life when most people still think of her as a boy. But don’t assume Dreadnought is “simple” because of its superhero plot–in her #ownvoices novel, April Daniels’ has created a nuanced world fit for mystery and social commentary, alike. She does so namely by paralleling the struggles of transitioning with the problems Danielle faces when she gets her powers, showing just how complex coming out and transitioning can be.

Daniels shows the double standard to which Danielle is being held as a teenager both regarding her transness and her powers. In this world where people with powers can choose to be a “whitecape” (a hero who does not kill anyone, in brief) in a regional guild, Danielle is pressured to join because of her immense power. However, she’s still a minor, so she is not allowed to officially join as a member or even to go out and save people. She’s even given a form by one of the members of the regional guild known as “the Legion” that would automatically sign her up once she should turn 18, pressuring her to make a huge decision at her young age. In a similar way, her parents (particularly her terrible father) infantilize her when it comes to Danielle’s sudden transition. Her father makes all of the decisions and makes assumptions about everything in her life, not giving her the chance to speak for herself–even going so far as to almost treat her as a trans man and suggest that she go on testosterone. All of these responses mimic the real world: though teenagers are expected to make major decisions about their lives such as their career, whether they intend to join the military, and more, when it comes to gender identity and sexuality, they are treated as mere children who cannot be expected to make the “right” decision. Even though Danielle gets her ideal body, she’s still misgendered and treated as a child–an incredibly realistic situation, considering the misinformed beliefs people have about transness.

As well, in Daniels’ world, being a whitecape or a “greycape” (or a superhero who is willing to kill for the sake of the greater good) marks a person in a certain way similar to how being out about being trans is. They are forced to take a stance and cannot take it back; even going so far as to put them in danger, as is the case with Doctor Impossible, whose arch nemesis would continue to attack her even if she tried to go neutral. The alternative, in this situation, would be to take up a job as a courier with a “special ability” instead of a super power–implying that they’re weaker and not in a position to fight/protect others. This directly parallels the trans experience of being out. For trans people, the alternative is going stealth. Daniels takes great care to show the whitecapes and greycapes in their daily lives, often unable to act as a “normal” person in public for fear of putting themselves and others in danger. For the greycapes, they hide their identities, play it lowkey, and hope for the best; for the whitecapes, they live in Legion tower and can only be “normal” around other whitecapes. I particularly appreciated how Daniels pointed out the gaps in privilege between whitecapes and greycapes: in wealth, social class, race, wealth, and background, the whitecapes almost always had it better. With the backing of a wealthy guild, the whitecapes could pick and choose their members, keeping the less privileged folks out. As for the parallel to transness in the real world, it’s pretty clear: being “out” can take many shapes, and different trans people can have vastly different circumstances.

Along the same vein, Daniels remarks on the complexities of being trans amidst other minority groups through how Danielle is treated by the Legion. In the first meeting with the Legion, it’s clear that they’re under prepared when it comes to trans people. There’s not a single  trans person amidst the upper-echelon, they freely share her medical details with one another, and one character (Graywytch, but I called her Graybytch in my head because she’s awful) purposefully misgenders her and receives no repercussions for her actions. That’s not to say there aren’t LGBTQIA+ people amidst the group–there are at least two people who do not identify as straight, but both of them are pretty cringey when it comes to how they treat Danielle. Here, Daniels parallels how real-life support groups for minorities (both LGBTQIA+ focused and otherwise) often drop the ball when it comes to trans people. It’s the problem of intersectionality, and it’s only worsened in extremely privileged groups (like the Legion). Yet again, I was impressed by Daniels’ riveting world that approaches very real issues for trans people without it losing any of the intrigue of its fictional setting.

If it’s not clear by now, I absolutely loved this. It has a sequel, Sovereign, which I’m really looking forward to reading. Daniels threw in a ton of little details that haven’t been completely wrapped up, and there are definitely some major plot points I can see developing. I think this is certainly a book that trans people would enjoy, though I think it holds cis peoples’ hands (like when a character explains to Danielle what the word cisgender means in the middle of dialogue). That’s not necessarily a bad thing–I do some of that in my own writing. I also know, though, that some trans people can get frustrated with that. On the other hand, I think its educational value is high for potential cisgender readers, showing different sides to issues many cis people don’t know about. It’s also just enjoyable to read about trans superheroes for once, and I hope she adds a trans masc cape in there somewhere. It would be nice to see Danielle, who got transformed when she got her powers, interact with a trans character who still has to go through transition the regular way. Overall, I’m definitely looking forward to the rest of this series!

Dreadnought by April Daniels

Publisher: Diversion Books (2017)

Paperback: Around $15

Number of Pages: 281

ISBN: 9781682300688

Content Warnings: Bullying, suicide mentions, gender dysphoria, transphobia, institutional racism, violence, misgendering, death, gore, being outed, blackmail, manipulation, abuse, fetishization. Trans people don’t die in this book, but they do live dangerously.

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