Dreadnought: Nemesis is one of my favourite young adult novels. There is a great line early in the book about how if you’re no good at being a boy, it’s beaten into you until you either comply or have the good grace to kill yourself. It’s a long time since I was a boy, but that line rang beautifully true.
We meet angry 15-year-old Danny putting nail varnish on in a carpark behind a mall, because that is the only way he can express femininity without being beaten to death. The novel’s trademark laconic humour then engages in Danny’s weary response to a superhero punch-up nearby. It implies such events are commonplace, until one of the combatants crashes down beside him.
Dreadnaught is dying, and Danny notices how the old superhero was exhausted even before being shot with a mysterious weapon. Danny learns that ‘Dreadnaught’ is a role passed from person to person when, unable to move and with no one else in the vicinity, the hero passes the mantle on to the boy.
At once, Danny engages with the fundamental structure of the universe, which the novel presents as a lattice of energy behind all things that can be manipulated by someone with the right power. Danny’s instinctive first act is to become Danielle: a beautiful girl with enhanced strength and the ability to fly. Despite this wondrous transformation, Danielle faces two pressing issues: what will the kids at school think and, more importantly, what will Dad say?
Any story is only as good as its antagonists, and this novel has three. Each has a relatable reason for what they do, even though from Danielle’s point of view their actions are catastrophic. First, there is the enigmatic Utopia, a fembot on some weird mission of her own. Then there is Graywytch, who uses magic instead of science and whose feminism excludes transgender women.
Worst of all is Danielle’s self-loathing father, a man not just determined to prevent his child making the same mistakes he did, but any mistakes at all. Although motivated by love, the father’s furious, resentful personality has twisted him into a bully. Faced with a child whose gender identity is now happily aligned, the man’s first response is to try and find a ‘cure’.
Danielle’s rescue of her father from a dangerous back-alley confrontation of his own making is less ironic than very sad. That Danielle cannot reveal her own involvement in the episode reveals the grim truth that superpowers are of little use if you cannot face your most intimate challenges.
Many YA novels make do with a couple of decent twists, but Dreadnaught: Nemesis possesses the structure of a quality thriller. Its unpredictable plot evolutions are rooted either in character or real-world physics, with the latter another of the novel’s strengths. Much of the current craze for superhero fiction, especially in movies, is the desire for some extreme but simple power to sort out labyrinthine contemporary problems. Dreadnaught: Nemesis has the courage to avoid easy delineations in favour of bold ambiguity.
For example, Danielle must navigate her confusing relationship with the Legion; an Avengers-type superhero group that includes the antagonists Utopia and Graywytch. Others in the group are supportive of the new Dreadnaught, especially chain-smoking genius Doc Impossible, a reluctant maternal figure who arranges Danielle’s superhero costume. Frustratingly for Danielle, she can only wear the neophyte colour grey, and is not permitted to carry out investigations.
The adult characters flaunt their own rules, however, and there is more hypocrisy in their preference for ‘high-end’ problems like megalomaniac villains over local issues such as poverty. Worse still is their willingness to let Danielle kill herself so the Dreadnaught mantle can be passed on to someone more ‘deserving’.
It’s a harshness matched only by the reaction to her new life of Danielle’s erstwhile best friend, who goes from confusion to lust and then, when rejected, becomes horribly abusive. Danielle’s resilience in the face of such hostility is as impressive as the wit she employs when using her new power. Her remarkable character is the vulnerable but determined heart of a novel that brilliantly succeeds in balancing young adult identity drama with meta-human politics.