A young girl, who is alienated from her friends and family because she feels she must hide who she truly is, witnesses a battle between the world’s greatest superhero, Dreadnought, and a mysterious powerful new enemy. In the end, Dreadnought falls. Before he dies, however, he passes on the power of Dreadnought to Danny, who must now decide what to do with this incredible gift.
It is, in its broad strokes, a familiar story. But in April Daniels’ 2017 novel Dreadnought, Danny is a trans girl, born into a male body. The power of Dreadnought transforms Danny’s body into the form that she knew it always should be — but this comes with its own challenges, which pile on top of the burden of having inherited the mantle.
Though, as I said, the origin story of Dreadnought here is a broadly familiar one, April Daniels spins it into a fun, fast-paced, and enjoyable tale, with an impressive amount of world-building and interesting twists.
In the world of Dreadnought, superpowers are common, so much so that there are different classes of power-wielders, each with their own cultures. The White Capes are very much the traditional good guy superheroes, following strict sets of rules and laws, and organizing in societies and legions for mutual defense and protection. The Gray Capes are vigilantes, willing to bend the rules and hurt people to accomplish their goals. And many people with powers don’t work as superheroes at all, instead using their abilities in jobs — a flying courier can get across town very quickly, for example.
Some people don’t have superpowers at all, but are able to invent new technology, hypertech, that can do amazing things, cannot be duplicated, and seemingly violates the laws of physics. It was in reading the description of hypertech that Daniels presents that I really fell in love with the world-building that she has done in the book. There is a whole history to this world, some of which is introduced in the novel, but much of which one feels is waiting to be revealed.
It is into this world that Danny is thrust when she acquires the powers of Dreadnought and a new female body. At first glance, this would seem like the perfect wish fulfillment, but Danny quickly realizes that life will be challenging even with godlike abilities. Her parents are unwilling to accept her true gender, her relationship with her best friend starts to sour thanks to her new appearance, and even the Legion of superheroes has intolerant members within it who can’t cope with the new Dreadnought. And Danny has her own insecurities and fears, which have built up over a lifetime of hiding who she is, that threaten to hold her back.
But she has a mission: find the killer of the previous Dreadnought, and bring them to justice. But as a new superhero, is Danny any match for someone who can kill a god, and what plans does this villain have for the world?
Dreadnought manages to strike an excellent balance between character development and adventure. The superhero battles are really well written, and I could almost feel the crushing blows in one of the climactic fights in the novel. These battles fit nicely with the growth of Danny into her new role as a hero, and her struggles with her personal life. The plot of Dreadnought is self-contained, but leaves enough opening for its sequel, Sovereign, which I will be reading next.
I must admit that this is the first novel I’ve read with a trans protagonist. It was really a wonderful experience, though, and — thanks to April Daniels — I will be on the lookout for more in the future.