2017’s Dreadnought is the first novel in April Daniels’ Nemesis series. It’s the first book I have read by this author and it will not be the last.
Fifteen-year-old Danny went shopping. Buying nail polish, which was their coping mechanism for life with a domineering father who would react with rage and abuse if he were to discover that his son Danny is actually his daughter Danny. What Danny got out of the shopping trip was a starring role as “vulnerable bystander in a battle between two superhumans,” a bystander cowering as the mighty Dreadnought fights to the death with villain Utopia.
Danny was lucky not to be reduced to a sooty outline on a wall. Their luck does not stop there.
Mortally wounded by Utopia, Dreadnought passed his powers to Danny, the only person in proximity to the dying superhero. Danny is not just imbued with superhuman abilities. The gift transforms its bearer into their idealized form. In Danny’s case, that would be a teen-aged girl. Transition complete! Or so you might think.
With great power come enormous complications:
- The Legion Pacifica, arguably America’s paramount superhero team, knows that Danny has gained Dreadnought’s powers. They also know who Danny is. They’re divided on how best to handle the teenager, which does not stop them from handing out unrequested advice.
- Legion Pacifica is also divided on how they feel about transgendered people, ranging from Doctor Impossible’s off-handed acceptance to Graywytch’s escalating hostility.
- Danny’s new body provides her with abundant learning experiences, from how to buy clothes1 to learning that her former best friend isn’t so much a misunderstood kid as a full-blown creep.
- Danny needs to decide which of the established enhanced/superhuman factions among she will join: whitecape (the good guys … or so they say), the graycapes (who are just doing what needs to be done … or so the graycapes say), blackcapes (the bad guys; just ask the whitecapes) or the unaffiliated trying to maintain a low profile. Every choice has benefits and drawbacks.
- Being bullet-proof confers no invulnerability to emotional abuse. Danny’s rage-monster father is not happy that his son (from whom he had demanded masculinity) is now a girl. He would be even less happy if he knew Danny had all along wanted it that way.
On the plus side, Danny has a new best friend, the graycape Calamity. Despite the strict admonition from the Legion not engage in unsanctioned caping, Danny is drawn into Calamity’s exciting life of night-time skulking and private investigations.
Danny’s new senses tell her something the Legion cannot know: the mysterious weapon Utopia used to kill Dreadnought isn’t just lethal to the victim. It damages the fabric of reality itself. Stopping Utopia is too important to treat as someone else’s problem. Regardless of what the Legion may or may not be doing to find Utopia, the two teens are determined to track down the killer themselves.
The only problem is, the previous Dreadnought had far more experience using the mantle of power than Danny has at the moment … and even then Utopia was able to kill him. What could Danny do that Dreadnought did not?2
The advantage of teenaged protagonists is the author does not have to spend a lot of time justifying their bad decisions. Bad life choices is what adolescence is all about! Rejoice in the fact that you can make do with considerably fewer than eight fingers and two thumbs! But do try to avoid Danny and Calamity’s mistake of engaging the Big Bad in a fight well before the end of the book.
This novel’s model of secret identities is that they generally only work for obscure people3
and then only if nobody puts any effort into trying to connect a superhero with their secret ID. The capes don’t seem to be fully cognizant of this, but from what we see in the book, it’s not that hard for people with the appropriate resources — journalists, alphabet agency operatives, high-schoolers with a sideline in adventuring — to track down the people behind the masks. That’s likely to be hard on one’s loved ones and pets. Though only at the beginning of one’s career, before all the squishy DNPCs get killed by blackcapes).
(The squishy death toll must be kinda high, as there are a lot of humans with superpowers and enhanced abilities. Calamity claims there are ten at her Seattle high school. That implies a rate anywhere from 1 in 50 to 1 in 200. Even the lower figure suggests almost 2 million Americans [almost 38 million worldwide] have some degree of superhuman abilities. That, uh, would seem to be something of a challenge for governments and social institutions. Possibly a world-ending challenge, since some of those 38 million people will be far out on the right end of the bell curve for 1) powers of mass destruction and 2) evil glee in wreaking destruction.
I would imagine that there is a healthy market for Valium and Xanax in this world.)
Daniels, the author, puts just as much effort into dramatizing Danny’s gender problems as she does the fight scenes. Danny must not only deal with the physical transformation4, but she must learn to deal with other people’s reactions to that transformation. Which range from acceptance to homicidal rage.
This was Daniels’ debut novel, and a promising debut it is. As soon as I put the book down, I took steps to acquire a copy of the second book in the series.
1: If the pockets thing — that most clothing intended for women doesn’t have useful pockets — came up, I missed it. It’s possible Danny has not noticed the pocket disparity between men’s and women’s clothes because superhero costumes for all genders generally don’t have pockets. Being skin-tight spandex or body armor and not much in between.
2: Because the novel is told from Danny’s point of view, it’s not clear whether some of Danny’s experiments are original or if previous Dreadnoughts had also discovered the “make own bones explode” power and had chosen not to use it.
3: Decades ago, there was an issue of the comic Green Arrow in which Oliver Queen learned that people were just humouring his delusion that he had a secret ID. It was never hard to connect fork-bearded millionaire Oliver Queen with fork-bearded Green Arrow.
4: Danny is somewhat embarrassed that her new form is clearly shaped by social expectations of what idealized women should look like.