Dreadnought stars Danny, a transgender teenage girl, who happens to live in an alternative version of our world that is populated by people with super powers. Danny finds herself in the middle of a superhero fight and, when the superhero (the eponymous Dreadnought) dies in said fight, he passes his powers on to Danny. These powers come with a perk for the host - a transformation of the host's body into the host's idealized physical appearance. For Danny, this means a physical transition without expensive surgeries. While absolutely thrilled to be in possession of a body that matches what she has always longed for, Danny now has to deal with the consequences - both of no longer being able to hide her gender identity (and the fact that she is gay) and of her newfound super powers. The road that lies before her is fraught with both moments of hope and of hopelessness.
If you've ever wanted to have your discussions of hard-hitting social and moral issues wrapped up in a superhero story, you have come to the right place. Reading Dreadnought feels like watching a fun-filled, action-packed superhero movie, while being asked to think critically about issues that are anything but fun-filled. From explorations of the many dimensions of transphobia to depictions of abusive home environments and family relationships to the unspoken undercurrent of sexism that pervades society even in a version of the world where women are some of the strongest superheros, Daniels pulls no punches in this novel.
Danny's story drives home the realization that physical transition does not allow transgender individuals to escape transphobia. Having your outsides suddenly match your insides doesn't translate into automatic acceptance. As an aside, the amount on transphobia and homophobia on blunt display in this novel can be a quite a shock to the system if you aren't prepared. Consider this your warning.
On a much different note, it is nice to see the pages of this novel filled with an ethnically diverse set of characters with a strong emphasis on portraying strong women who are anything but one-dimensional, submissive, mothering machines. These women are individuals with their own pasts, motivations, and opinions. Daniels does not, however, let her readers get lulled into the false sense that sharing a gender means sharing solidarity. Fear and hate know no gender.
Despite my sincere appreciation of the ambition of the content in Dreadnought, I unfortunately had some problems with the writing in this book. Much of my criticism on this front has to do with pacing. The book is very slow to start even given Danny's transformation taking place within the first ten pages. The pace does pick up after about a third of the way into the book; however, it is spotty after that. The thing that stuck out the most for me when considering why the pacing seems off was the juxtaposition of long stretches of easy-to-read and easy-to-follow prose with long paragraphs filled with convoluted, often confusing sentence structures. Unfortunately, the complicated sentence structures popped up during action scenes and not in the internal monologues, further throwing off the pacing.
My reservations about the quality of the writing, however, do not make Dreadnought any less supremely relevant. As a YA Own Voices novel that capably deals not only with the many issues faced by transgender individuals but also with problems of identity and the impact of abusive home environments, this book should be on every high school summer reading list and on every library shelf. Regardless of how fantastical the premise may be, I think that Dreadnought would serve as an excellent source of solace and solidarity for transgender teens and as a learning tool for the rest of humanity. Read it.
Trigger warning: This book contains depictions of and discussions about verbally abusive home environments as well as liberal literary use of transphobic and homophobic slurs.
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