For someone whose username is literally Blogging Sammy I don’t do a lot of it, huh?
To be fair it’s been a wild ride at work, I’m stepping up to cover a lot of additional duties and I’m also doing my management course at the same time, so time’s been a bit tight. Hopefully we’re getting out of the other side now, but I don’t expect anything to really change before Christmas.
So what’re we doing today? I’ve recently (about a month ago) finished reading Dreadnought, by April Daniels (twitter linked). I’ve been looking for good trans positive fiction and this book has always come up at the top of the list so I’ve been intrigued. Unfortunately none of the bookshops around where I live carry it so I had to venture onto the dreaded Amazon and buy an ebook copy.
Why haven’t I reviewed it already, why wait a month? See above.
Dreadnought is a superhero story. It’s, at its heart, an origin story about a Superman class hero; someone whose powers are “I win”.
We’re not necessarily off to a good start here, for me personally at least. I don’t like Captain “It Means Hope On My Planet”; I think he’s bloody boring. Superman’s powers are being invincible, super strong/fast/smart/etc., can always do the thing and save the day…. Dull! Where’s the drama?
Before I get mentions full of angry fanboys; I get it. The drama and the story is best when it’s not about him, when it’s about the people around him who aren’t superheroes. I read a section in the wonderful FATE RPG series talking about how “Hit Points” for a superman-type hero aren’t the hero’s own health pool, but could be thought of more as the people around them. Take 10 damage and people are getting hurt, 20 and they’re dying, no HP left? You’ve failed; a city is blown up. Even with all that he’s still right at the bottom of the pile for superheros I give a crap about.
Dreadnought (the book not the hero) gets around that in two ways; firstly this is an origin story so the hero power set isn’t comfortable yet, there’s exploration and growth, and uncertainty. Secondly, we’ll get onto, it’s so empowering and fun.
So who is Dreadnought (the hero not the book)? Dreadnought is “The” hero. The big guy, the one who fights off planet scale problems, who is always there when the supervillains are looking to blow up everything forever. He also, spoilers, dies at the beginning (I’m not that guilty, it’s like page 5). How can he die when I’ve just told you how invincible he is? That’s a big part of the plot setup at the start of the book; how will the world and Dreadnought’s team react when the impossible happens, who did it, and how do we stop them now?
This is where our main character comes in. Danny Tozer is there when Dreadnought crashes through buildings and smacks into the ground, dying. Danny goes over to the barely-alive hero, recognising him, and tries to help. Unable to do anything Dreadnought dies, but passes on the “Mantle” of power to Danny, causing Danny to black out.
When Danny wakes up things have changed. You see Danny was assigned male at birth, and was hiding in a parking lot painting her nails to try and alleviate some of the dysphoria associated with being trans.
Painting my toes is the one way I can take control. The one way I can fight back. The one way I can give voice to this idea inside me that gets heavier every year:
I’m not supposed to be a boy.
She can’t come out to her family, she can’t begin any form of treatment, and (as we find out later) this is the safest way for her to keep sane until something changes. That is until she comes round to find she is now, for all intents and purposes, biologically a woman. She’s also a gorgeous woman, Danny’s ideal physical self made real.
This is a good time to point out that this book is endlessly quotable. There are so many passages throughout that are so uplifting and freeing, so perfectly descriptive.
Everything is wrong, but so perfectly right. I wrap my arms around my legs and rock back and forth. The last little doubts are gone, and the fear leaves with them.
I’m free. I’m finally free.
That moment passes when Danny realises that this is going to be a whole new problem. She doesn’t really know what’s happened, she’s never heard of this happening before, and she now has to go home to explain this.
I’m not going to go through a play-by-play of the rest of the book, but I’m going to highlight non-spoiler parts.
A lot of the book focuses on how Danny comes to terms with now being a superheroine, but also how everyone else comes to terms with it. There’s the local justice league who are a whole bundle of mixed feelings from distress that The Dreadnought is gone, to be replaced with this child. There’s people semi-excited at the chance to train a new Dreadnought and learn about how the mantle/powers work. There’s people looking out purely for their own good to try and get something out of this appointment, financially (yes really).
Then there’s one of the parts of the book that makes this such a hard read for a trans person.
Big ol’ Trigger Warning for Transphobia/Domestic Abuse here folks (click here to jump to the end point)
One of the members of the “Legion Pacifica” is Graywytch. She is out, loud, and proud; a TERF. For those of you who have been lucky enough to avoid them TERF is an acronym for “Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminist”. The accuracy of the name (in that they tend to also be very anti-woman) is something I don’t have the words here to describe, but TERFs really focus on the first two bits; Trans Exclusionary.
Graywytch is vile, she has a personal objection to Danny being Dreadnought because Danny is trans. Nothing more, nothing less. She is of the opinion that having a trans Dreadnought will destroy woman-kind, and that Danny should immediately give up the mantle to someone more deserving. Danny, understandably, doesn’t want to do this. Partly because she’s not sure if she’ll retain her body is she does, partly because it seems the easiest way to do this is to kill herself, but also because of a strong feeling of “fuck you” (right on!).
Graywytch is a difficult character to read because, as April has said in interviews, she speaks almost entirely in actual TERF rhetoric. Some of the things she says are truly disturbing and I’m not going to repeat any of them here (go buy the book to find out) but it does make for a hard time.
The next people to worry about are Danny’s parents. Danny lives with her mother and father in a small house with a lot of problems. There’s no way to talk about her family without highlighting Danny and her mother are the victims of domestic abuse perpetrated by her father. This is also a really difficult read.
Danny’s father is manipulative, angry, and abusive. He spends most of the book trying to find ways to turn Danny back, or else control Danny, because he can’t stand the idea of having a trans daughter. I get a real feeling that if he had been born with a daughter he wouldn’t have cared, his problem is how people will view him now that his “son” is female.
Danny is painted really realistically here, and there’s a quote at one point I want to share:
Maybe it’s because your mother is always Mom to you, or maybe it’s because I was in denial, but finally it hits me: Mom is just as much his captive as I am. She’s not just the quieter parent, the more reasonable one. She’s the trustee trapped between the warden and the other prisoner.
Immediately upon the heels of this understanding is another: I must not say this out loud. To say it out loud is to name it, and to name it is to give it irresistible power. That power will mean it can no longer be ignored. The polite fictions and convenient blind spots won’t work anymore. Something will have to change.
There’s something immensely off-putting about reading the sections where the abuse is apparent. To my recollection it never becomes physical, but even as the reader you feel powerless and hopeless in the face of the rage and terrorising. Even as Danny begins to lean more into the rebelliousness and feeling of confidence (we’ll get to that in a bit too) she is bought crashing down to meek agreeing and attempting to placate her father, just waiting for it to blow over and return to normality.
If you have been a victim of domestic abuse in the past I can imagine these sections will be particularly difficult to read, but as someone who was not it has given me insight into how you can be locked in to it that I didn’t have before. And it’s heartbreaking.
“Her voice is soft and kind. “Danny, do you feel safe at home?”
There it is. I don’t feel safe at home. I open my mouth to say something, and as I do I realize that like my other, I can’t give it a name. Not out loud. Not even to Valkyrja. Because if I admit it, if I call it what it is, then I can’t hide from it anymore either. It becomes real in a way I am not ready for. Might never be ready for. There will be no illusions of safety, no peaceful times alone in my room.
There will only be times when he’s not hurting me.
Trigger Warning Over
That being said, and it being so difficult to read as a trans woman, I finished it in a day. The plot is twisy enough I didn’t see the ending coming (though that might have been because I was distracted). This wasn’t a groundbreaking book, and there are no boundaries pushed from superhero literature (unless you count having a trans woman as the protagonist which bloody well shouldn’t be, but sadly is), but the sheer delight and joy of Danny realising she is powerful and she can throw off the weights holding her back is exhilarating. It may be a bit of vicarious living on my part.
I see a world that is terrified of me.
Terrified of someone who would reject manhood. Terrified of a girl who knows who she is and what she’s capable of. They are small, and they are weak, and they will not hurt me ever again.
My name is Danielle Tozer. I am a girl.
No one is strong enough to take that from me anymore.
There were moments I was grinning reading it, willing Danny on, wanting it to work out. Every time she crosses a power threshold and realises what she can do, every time she survives and comes out stronger, is wonderful and heartwarming in a way not many books manage.
So should you read it? Tricky question.
If you’re a domestic abuse survivor or trans person it might be difficult, but I think it’s still enjoyable. If you’re a trans ally; definitely. There’s something so powerful about an experience I identify with so strongly being represented in first person, it hits you right in the soul.
I’ll be back once I’ve read the second one.
If you are feeling suicidal or are concerned about someone who might be, please consider reaching out to someone (UK link).
If you are currently in an abusive relationship or are worried about someone else who might be, please reach out to someone on this list (again, UK link).
If you are not in the UK there is help available, Google whatever local resources have been put in place to help you. You are not alone.