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Dreadnought: Nemesis - Book One Paperback – 9 Feb 2017
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“I didn’t know how much I needed this brave, thrilling book until it rocked my world. Dreadnought is the superhero adventure we all need right now.”―Charlie Jane Anders, author of All the Birds in the Sky
“A thoroughly enjoyable, emotionally rich, action-packed story with the most exciting new superheroes in decades. Unmissable.”―Kirkus Starred Review
“…A fascinating exploration of gender identity in a fantastical setting.”―Publishers Weekly
“This first title in the series offers a rich, unusual mix of subjects and themes for fantasy fans.”―School Library Journal
“I’m not normally a fan of superhero narratives, and then I find an exception that grabs me by the throat and makes me love it. Dreadnought is one of those exceptions.” ―Liz Bourke, Tor.com
“Dreadnought is a coming-of-age story: it’s all about Danny coming to terms with her own power and her own agency, not just as a superhero, but as a person (and as a person who chooses to be a superhero), and it’s one that doesn’t shy away from consequences, either. People get hurt, sometimes badly―sometimes killed, and it’s this willingness to highlight the fact that standing up doesn’t come without real cost that gives Dreadnought its real heart.”―Locus Magazine
About the Author
April Daniels graduated from UC Santa Cruz with a degree in literature. She completed her first manuscript by scribbling a few sentences at a time between calls while working in the customer support department for a well-known video game console.
She has a number of hobbies, most of which are boring and predictable. As nostalgia for the 1990s comes into its full bloom, she has become ever more convinced that she was born two or three years too late and missed all the good stuff the first time around.
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The is not a novel that screws around. We first meet 15-year-old Danny angrily putting on nail varnish in a car park behind a mall because that is the only way he can express his essential femininity without being kicked to death. There then follows some of the novel’s trademark laconic humour as a superhero punch-up takes place nearby. It’s the kind of scene that ‘Batman V Superman’ did so well (bear with me) in that it looks at how terrifying Superman potentially is. It’s all a case of new perspective - something this novel has in abundance.
Danny’s rather weary response to the metas slugging it out suggests that these beings are a norm in the world of the novel, which does well by not dwelling too much on them before one crashes to the earth beside Danny. Dreadnaught is dying, and Danny notices how old and worn the superhero is; that he was exhausted even before taking a shot to the chest from an uncanny weapon that has drilled a fatal hole through him. We learn that Dreadnaught is actually a role passed from person-to-person and that in the absence of anyone else in the vicinity, the hero passes the mantle on to the boy.
Danny immediately grasps the essential structure of the universe, which the novel presents as a kind of lattice behind all things that can be manipulated be someone with the right level of power. Along with a rigorous approach to real-world physics, these metaphysics are another of the novel’s strengths. They place the story firmly in the SF tradition, something often woefully lacking in YA fiction, without the sort of dry clever dickery that puts so many people off.
Danny’s instinctive first act is to reconfigure his own body so that he becomes the girl of his dreams, in this case a lingerie-model beauty with smaller hands and feet, considerable but not unlimited strength and the ability to fly. Danny is now Danielle, which would be lovely but for two pressing issues: what will the kids at school think and worst of all, what will Dad say?
Any story is only as good as its antagonists, and this novel has three great ones. The reason they are all so good is that none of them are cartoony - indeed, the depth of characterisation is why this book is a prose novel rather than, say, a graphic one. Each has a very good, wholly relatable reason for doing what they do even though their actions are catastrophic as far as Danielle is concerned.
First, there is the mysterious Utopia, a fembot who is on some weird mission of her own and whose reaction to Danielle when they meet is not what our heroine expected. Then there is Graywytch, who uses magic instead of science and is the kind of extreme feminist I’m surprised we haven’t seen more of in the era of Trump. It is Graywytch who asks the question about menstruation, a factor Danielle has conveniently forgotten to engineer into her new self. Worst of all though is Danielle’s father, a man who perhaps correctly sees himself as a failure and is determined at all costs to prevent his child making the same mistakes. There is no doubt that Dad is motivated by love; it is just that his furiously resentful personality twists it into something awful and bullying. Faced with his happily altered child, the man’s first response is to try and find ‘a cure’. Sigh, and yet, you know, the current US administration…
It’s not even ironic when Danielle has to rescue her own father from some frightful situation of his own making as he pursues this loathsome course, just very sad. That Danielle can’t even reveal her own involvement in the rescue illustrates without overdoing the point that superpowers are no use at all if you do not have the strength inside yourself to face down your most intimate challenges.
If all this sounds a bit heavy, don’t worry, it’s not. Many novels, YA and other, make do with a few decent twists and generally we’re all happy with that. This one, though, has all of the fine structure of a decent thriller, with plot evolutions rooted in character that you won’t see coming. It’s helped by the ambiguity around everything that happens. Much of the current craze for superhero fiction, especially in movies, is for some extreme but simple power to sort out the labyrinthine problems we find ourselves up against. ‘Dreadnaught’ has the courage to avoid all that. For example, the Legion - an organisation of superheroes with their own tower and a fondness for sorting out the high end problems of the world rather than, you know, local issues around poverty - is a constant source of confusion for Danielle. These adults would quite happily have Danielle top herself so that the mantle can be passed on to someone more deserving. Yeah, you read that right. However, they are also supportive, especially the rather lovely chain-smoking genius Doc Impossible, a kind of alternative mother figure to Danielle who sorts Danielle’s superhero costume out. Revealingly, Danielle isn’t allowed to have colours other than grey to disguise her and isn’t allowed to carry out investigations, plus assorted other adult rule-based nonsense that none of them seem to take any notice of. Worse still is the reaction of Danielle’s best friend, which of all the harshness in the book is for me the most upsetting.
This is a novel that carries off an almost impossible balancing act, from the personal YA drama of sexual and personal identity to human and meta-human politics. It succeeds with aplomb and I was sorry when I came to the end of it. Recommended, and then some.
Meshes beautifully with the story, the action is fast and well written and the main two characters have an enjoyable relationship. I've downloaded volume 2 already :)
When she suddenly inherits the powers of Dreadnought, our heroine, Danny, is scared people will find out at first. Not just that she’s transgender (the book opens with Danny, still biologically male, secretly buying nail polish and hiding behind dumpsters to put it on), but once she becomes Dreadnought she’s scared about her friends and family finding out.
I’m not going to pretend that I understand the emotional turmoils transgender kids go through, but I can’t help but think they’d give anything to transform as easily as Danny does in this novel. Her new body and superpowers are gifted to her by the passing of the current Dreadnought. Similar to the Green Lantern movie if you’ve seen that, where it gets passed on to Ryan Reynolds at the death of the previous Lantern.
In establishing some of the history, Ms Daniels explains the origins of Dreadnought with…
“…the British had built a warship that revolutionized naval warfare. HMS Dreadnought was faster, stronger, and tougher than anything else afloat. Overnight, it made every other battleship in the world obsolete. That’s what the first man to wear the mantle did to metahumans.”
…thus the name was taken by the first “Dreadnought” who was unrivalled by the other superheros (and villains) of the time.
The irony in all of this of course is that the mantle of Dreadnought gets passed onto someone the polar opposite of this. Someone so emotionally fragile from wanting to be something else, and from being emotionally abused by her father and from being bullied at school.
Even when physically toughened against any punishment evildoers can dish out, the emotional scars still run deep. So much so that Danny can’t find it in herself to stand up to her father even after becoming superhuman.
It doesn’t help that her father, and even a couple of the super-friends from the Legion Pacifica (basically the local chapter of superhero union) are ignorant douchebags. The real, raw emotions Danny feels when her dad is yelling at her, belittling her, is powerful stuff. Ms Daniels does a great job in these moments , making you feel Danny’s torment and pain through the words on the page.
Of course it’s not all bad news. There’s the fun of learning to control her new powers, most noticeably the ability to fly. Having only tried it out in her bedroom, she suddenly needs to work it out when representatives of the Legion Pacifica come knocking at her window.
Plus of course getting to experience the world as a female for the first time, which is something she’s wanted for a long time. There’s the bonding with her mother as they shop together for the first time for underwear and clothes to fit her new shape, but even her elation at this is tempered by needing to hide it from her father.
Doc Impossible (friendly mad scientist) of the Legion Pacifica befriends her and tries to let her know what the superhero life of a “whitecape” (the good guys) is really like. It’s not just all glamorous and sexy hero stuff, but it’s also hard on you and your loved ones. Like the day to day stuff “baselines” (non supers) take for granted like their privacy or something as simple as renting an apartment.
Early on she befriends a morally ambiguous vigilante (a “greycape“) called Calamity who helps Danny find her footing in the life of a superhero and helps her with the decision she’s struggling with: join the Legion Pacifica as a whitecape and become the next Dreadnought or live anonymously as a greycape by pretending to be less than she is.
I could bang on about this novel all day, but I don’t want to give too much away. I was very happy to see that book 2 – Sovereign – is slated for a 2017 release. I’ll be getting that when it comes out.