Dreadnought Review: What It Means To MeDecember 20, 2020
I’ve been looking for a replacement for Harry Potter on my bookshelf for a little while now. JK Rowling is a horrible transphobe and while I know people want to divorce her from her work, I don’t think that’s possible. The author may be dead, but as long a J.K. Rowling is still alive, she profits from Harry Potter. She uses those profits to increase her platform and advocate against trans people. So, I can’t support the franchise or any of her other work.
But, I found a new book that I think makes a wonderful replacement for the wizarding world.
Dreadnought is April Daniels’s young adult novel about a trans superhero named Danny Tozer who has been hiding her true self. She’s got an abusive father that wants her to be more of a man. While hiding in an alley painting her toenails, she witnesses the death of the world’s most famous superhero, the titular Dreadnought. Before dying he passes his mantle on to Danny, granting her his powers.
This has the wonderful side effect of giving her the body she’s always wanted. She gets to experience an instantaneous transition. The book follows her as she starts to understand her powers and take up the mantle of Dreadnought. The book also shows her that even with a body matching her true self, she has hardships. Daniels doesn’t shy away from some of the more harsh realities of being a trans woman.
Danny has to fight with a father who wants to “fix” her and fails to listen to anything she says. She get recruited by a superhero team and one of the superheroes is a TERF. The doctor that examines her outs her as trans to the rest of the superhero group and gives Graywytch more ammo for her bigotry. Her mother seems mostly good, but also wants to fix her and her best friend is a sexist creep that now turns his attentions to her idealized body.
The book tackles all of these topics with incredible weight. Daniels doesn’t shy away at all from depicted some of the tough aspects of Danny’s life.
The superhero story fits very well into that genre. Danny has to track down the villain that killed her predecessor and is joined by her friend Sarah, who goes by the name Calamity. Together they investigate the weapon that killed the previous Dreadnought and hunt Utopia down.
The climax of the book is heart pounding and you’ll race through the last hundred pages to get to the end.
It’s a very good superhero story with a very satisfying, but difficult ending. I want to talk about this book in more depth, but I can’t without spoiling it for you. If everything I’ve just written makes you want to read it, stop here. Go read the book, and then come back.
Some chapters were hard to read and I cried a few times while reading it. As a trans woman, I found the book really relatable. It’s so emotionally honest. There is a chapter where after coming out to her father, Danny is grounded and told to stay home so nobody sees her new body. She sneaks out and goes to school, effectively coming out in public. This sets her father off and the rest of the chapter is heartbreaking. Her dad lays into her, calling her a freak and accusing her of trying to ruin the family.
Earlier in the book, Danny turns down her best friend’s romantic interests and he responds by calling her a tranny and hoping she gets raped. While these stories aren’t exactly the kinds of things I endured as a child, there was something about the emotions of them that were so relatable.
My family has mostly been supportive with my transition. But, my sister wasn’t. We aren’t on speaking terms anymore because she was incredibly cruel. She was the first person that I ever was honest about transitioning with. She was a family member and the only real girl I could talk to. But when I came out, she called me disgusting and a freak. Later, when I tried to mend the fences and explain that I wanted to transition, she told me she didn’t want to talk about that with me and that I would never be a real woman. These interactions with her forced me further into the closet and were a big part of the reason that it took me so long to transition.
Reading these chapters of the book, I just thought about how mean she was to me, how cruel and dehumanizing. I felt awful. This chapter of the book brought all that back up in a way I didn’t expect. I hated Danny’s father. More than I’ve ever hated any character in a book or movie. In another chapter of the book, he gets into trouble with a violent metahuman by trying to find a “cure” for Danny. Danny is forced to save him and I didn’t want her to. I wanted him to die. After this fight with him, she tells him she wants to stay as she is and he blows up again. Prompting her to think, “I should have let him die.”
I felt that so much. I don’t want my sister to die, but I definitely don’t want a relationship with her. I’m happy to live my life without her in it. I haven’t talked to her in years and I honestly doubt I will in the future.
The book also features a TERF superhero, Graywytch. Which I love because tell me that’s not the most J.K. Rowling thing ever. After receiving her superpowers, Danny is recruited by the Legion Pacifica, a group of superheroes. Most of them are well meaning and accepting of her. Their doctor, Doc Impossible, seems really accepting, using her preferred pronouns and correcting other heroes who slip up by calling Danny, Daniel instead of Danielle. But, this chapter was also full of things that were so emotionally true to my experience.
I transitioned last year, and have blogged about that before on this blog. One thing I haven’t talked about publicly is that several years ago, I was getting more and more sure I wanted to transition. A coworker and friend knew and wanted to support me. He told another member of our team without asking me first. This other teammate then confronted me at our holiday party and told me that I should do it. In front of a ton of people. I don’t remember exactly what he said, but it was something like, “You should do whatever you have to do to be happy.”
I don’t think people heard because it was so loud, but I felt so betrayed. These people weren’t trying to hurt me. They thought they were helping. But without meaning to, they made transition harder. I ended up being laid off a few weeks later and decided being able to pay rent was more important.
In the book, Doc Impossible performs a medical exam on Danny to see what the mantle has done to her. During this process, she confirms that although Danny has her ideal body image, she doesn’t have a uterus. The mantle changed her image, but not her biology. Doc Impossible then shares this information, without consent, to the rest of the team.
Graywytch uses this information to misgender and insult Danny, arguing that the mantle should be removed from her and given to someone else. Nobody knows if this this possible or if Danny would keep her body.
Graywytch becomes an antagonist later in the book by outing Danny’s superhero activities to her parents, which then gets her kicked out of the house for not giving up the mantle to become a boy again. This chapter is probably the hardest to read. A huge argument happens where Graywytch uses every TERF lie I know of to attack Danny, calling her a threat to real women and saying “you cannot possibly understand what it means to be a woman, and you rape us all when you try.”
The summer following my freshman year of college after a big fight between my sister and I, I was kicked out of my house. This fight wasn’t about my gender identity, but it was sitting there, underneath the fight. And for me, it felt like part of the reason.
Graywytch is everything J.K. Rowling is and reading this chapter you feel the weight of her bigotry. I don’t know if this character is based on J.K. Rowling, but her rant is so close to things Rowling has said that the comparison is natural.
Throughout all of this, Danny still has to go to school and work on being a superhero. She doesn’t get to put her life on hold while she figures herself out or deals with her transphobic parents. That was perhaps the most relatable thing for me. I transitioned mid-adulthood. I couldn’t stop working to figure myself out. I had to put my face on every day and pretend that I wasn’t dealing with this incredibly complex emotional and existential thing. I had to pretend that the transition was easy.
This book is so good. It’s the first book I’ve ever read that felt written for me. I see so much of myself in it and it makes it hard to read, but also makes it worth reading. I didn’t talk a lot about the superhero plot, but if you like superhero stories, you won’t be disappointed. It hits all the important beats and the climax is amazing.
I don’t often reread books. But, I really could see myself rereading this book every few years. I’ve already started on the sequel and I’ll probably blog about that too. So stay tuned!
I don’t expect everyone to give up Harry Potter the way I have. The world is complex and no media is free from problems. There is no ethical consumption under capitalism, after all. My boycott, if you can call it that, is more about my own emotional connection to that work. You don’t have to give up Harry Potter, but I think Dreadnought deserves a place on your bookshelf. It’s an incredible novel that is so honest and relatable. There isn’t a universal trans experience, but if you’re trans, I think you’ll find this book emotionally relatable. If you’re an ally, I think this book could open your eyes to things that your trans friends probably experience, but don’t talk about with you. The book isn’t written to help you understand trans people, but its so emotionally honest that I hope you’ll see some things you didn’t before.
I hope you’ll read it, and if you do, that you’ll buy it from Bookshop.org to support local bookstores!*
- I have no affiliation with Bookshop.org. I just like that they’re a good alternative to Amazon that helps local bookstores.