This is a book that I have been needing for a long time. I didn’t quite understand that when I started reading it, but hopefully it will be obvious with some context.
Stories about trans kids have been a thing in the YA market for some time now. Publishers have latched onto trans as a hot topic about which they must have a book. Many of them doubtless mean well, but all too often their offerings have been in the form of “cis person explains trans to other cis people”, with all of the attendant problems that can bring.
They shouldn’t really have made this mistake, because one of the very early examples of the genre got it right. When top-selling Australian writer, Hazel Edwards, decided to do a trans-themed book she enlisted the help of Ryan Kennedy, a trans man, to make sure she got it right. The resulting book, ftm: the boy within, was pretty good.
Unfortunately it was the rather problematic Luna that garnered all of the acclaim and sales. The crucial difference is that Luna was written from the point of view of the trans character’s cis sibling, and is in some ways more about how hard it is to have a trans person in the family than how hard it is to be trans. It makes the cis sibling the real victim of the book, and the happy ending is when the trans character leaves home.
Some authors tried using trans characters in YA speculative fiction. Alison Goodman did a pretty good job with Eon, and I’m very fond of Alaya Dawn Johnson’s The Summer Prince. However, in both cases the trans person is a supporting character, not the focal point of the book.
Meanwhile the flood of mainstream books by cis authors explaining trans to cis people gathered strength. I’ve not read many of them, partly because I have so many other books to read and partly because sense of revulsion I get from the cover blurbs. I get the impression from reviews by trans teenagers that my reticence is well founded.
There is one mainstream YA book by a trans author that has been getting very good reviews. It is Meredith Russo’s If I Was Your Girl. I tried to read it, but the first few chapters were all painful teenage angst and I put it down.
Now, of course, we have When the Moon Was Ours. Anna-Marie McLemore is a fabulous writer, and knows trans people well. It is, however, one of those books that you find people describing as magic realism rather than fantasy. While I very much enjoyed it, I was still waiting for a straight up YA science fiction book by a trans writer with a trans central character.
And lo, here it is: Dreadnought by April Daniels.
As the book opens, our hero, Danny Tozer, is loitering in the backstreets of New Port City. All of a sudden a superhero fight breaks out. With a thump, a body lands next to Danny. It is Dreadnought, the world’s greatest hero, and he’s dying.
One thing about Dreadnought, and several men have worn the mantle now, is that when he dies he bequeath his powers to a successor. Danny is the only person nearby. Another thing about Dreadnought is that along with all sorts of amazing super powers the owner of the mantle also gets to have that perfect body they’ve always dreamed of. In Danny’s case that perfect body would perhaps be better suited to a job as a lingerie model or beauty queen.
And now Danny has to go home and explain this transformation to her parents.
As you may suspect, there’s a fair dose of humor in this book.
For the first few chapters I was a bit worried, particularly after the massive infodump of Dreadnought’s history. The book is a first novel, and sadly way too many such things get published before they are ready these days. Fortunately things steadily improved.
Daniels doesn’t waste opportunities to highlight trans issues along the way. First up we have Danny’s parents, who are convinced that their poor boy must be deeply traumatized. They’ll do anything to help “him” get “his” male body back, even try this strange gender reassignment treatment. The irony of their desperation to do whatever it takes to give Danny a body she doesn’t want, whereas they would have refused point blank to help her get one she would want, is not lost on the reader.
Then we have the Legion Pacifia, the local superhero group that Dreadnought belonged to. As the new Dreadnought, Danny ought to join their ranks. But she’s only 14 and therefore legally a minor. One of the heroes, Carapace, is so upset at the death of his friend, the previous Dreadnought, that he wants nothing to do with the newcomer. Then there is Graywytch who is a straight-up trans-hating radical feminist, coming out with all of the usual nonsense about how Danny is a male rapist bent on penetrating women-only spaces.
Thankfully the Legion’s roster also includes Doc Impossible or, as most people, including myself, will call her, Holtzmann. (The book, of course, was written long before the new Ghostbusters film came out, but Daniels will have to live with this.)
Daniels is also very familiar with the superhero genre. She sets up a world in which many super-powered individuals are basically good people but, for various reasons, fall foul of the strict moral code followed by the Legion. These include a gunslinging girl called Calamity who befriends Danny and teaches her the rudiments of heroing after the Legion tells her she’s too young.
The first half of the book contains a fair amount of teenage angst as Danny tries to deal with her increasingly unreasonable parents and survive at school. However, as the book goes on it becomes more of a superhero story. After all, someone has to deal with the terrible threat that killed the world’s greatest hero. Who better to do that than the person who inherited his mantle, even if she is only 14.
The book ends with a suitably high-powered battle, but it clearly isn’t going to end there as an even more dangerous threat to Earth has been foreshadowed. I found Dreadnought a lot of fun, and both funny and sharp along the way. So I’m definitely looking forward to book two. I wish there were more books about trans characters like this.
Buy this book from:
The Book Depository