Having said my book reviews wouldn’t review books in the middle of series, I’m going to kind of cheat and review a twofer.
April Daniels has written two books in the Nemesis series, called Dreadnought and Sovereign. They’re a departure for me, on some levels at least, because ostensibly they’re superhero books. I’m far from the biggest fan of the genre in general, as you might tell from my reviews of many of the superhero blockbuster films, to the extent I’m not 100% sure how Dreadnought actually appeared on my reading list. However, it did and I’m pleased it did.
The first book opens in a somewhat unusual way. The titular Dreadnought dies - this is not unknown, they’ve died before as is made clear - and the power that converts a normal person into the new Dreadnought passes on to a scared teenager who is hiding from the battle with a supervillain nearby. This power, in the process of converting their normal body into a body capable of withstanding the stresses and strains of being a superhero, also remodels according to the desires and needs of the person it is now inhabiting. That’s where it starts to get really interesting - the person that the power inhabits is transgender and so gets transformed into the female form that is their inner self.
This, for me, makes the books work. Danielle, and Dreadnought, have various coming out and coming of age stories and struggles that run nicely alongside each other and are, on a writing craft level intertwined beautifully while on a story level there’s this entangled mess that reads incredibly true. It also adds layers and interest to the story and while there is a story arc in each book that could be converted into a blockbuster special-effects laden movie (it won’t be, a teenage trans, female, lesbian lead… yeah right) that’s actually less than one third of the story that we see, maybe less than one quarter. It’s hard to mention all the other story elements that are brought up here because they constitute big spoilers. What I will say is that the author has been through at least some of the experiences she writes about, being a trans woman, and quite a vocal trans rights spokesperson, and that weaves through these books. Without diving into the details I just hope that Ms Daniels hasn’t been through half of what she writes about although I know there’s a decent chance she’s been through all of it and more. But that lived in, lived through, experience shows - this is a time when “write what you know” makes a book, or two books rather, really spring to life. In that sense, the superhero element of this series almost acts as leavening. I might have read the books anyway but they’d have been pretty dark and hard. It seems wrong to talk about a superhero beating up gangsters and battling super-science powered bank robbers and the like as light relief but they do tend to act like that - the bad guys, be they minor or major, are clearly bad and there’s righteous anger and largely limited violence done to them. This breaks up the rest of the crap that’s being done to Danielle in her normal life. There is a theme about taking refuge in violence and anger that is dealt with in the second book as well.
There is more I could say but again it gets into spoiler territory.
I appreciate not everyone will like these books. Anyone who is transphobic will not pick them up. There are a lot of people who are even more opposed to superhero stories than me and won’t touch them - I would urge people in both groups, but especially the second group who might be willing to listen, to give them a go, no one can see the cover on your eReader of choice! There are some surprisingly disarming counters to various radical hate positions that it’s worth reading for. And despite, or depending on your interests as well as, the superhero story, there is a story of person’s journey from childhood into the early stages of adulthood the likes of which most of us really haven’t experienced as someone the world considers a boy grows into the young woman she was born. This isn’t a work of literature, it doesn’t pretend to be a work of literature, but one of the things great literature does is take us into other people’s lives and these books, despite their trappings do that in some unexpected, and really accessible ways.
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