Roger Ebert used to talk about how important emotional response was to him as a critic, often more important than the technical and artistic merits. Even the most technically and artistically exquisite film could be a hollow and unsatisfying experience if he didn’t connect emotionally, and the opposite could also be true: sometimes, without any other explanation, a seeming piece of trash could be surprisingly fun simply because it connected to something ineffable inside him.
So when the whole “Brie Larson commits white genocide against Old White Men” was a thing for a hot minute last month, I got what she was saying even though I didn’t think she expressed herself very eloquently. Old White Men are less likely to connect with movies that don’t feature white men, and that lack of connection can lead to consistently lower ratings, which affects “wisdom of the crowd” aggregated ratings like Rotten Tomatoes, especially when the crowd is disproportionately skewed towards Old White Men.
I’m starting with this because I often have to remind myself that I am not necessarily the primary audience for the book that I’m reading, especially if that book is about, say, a transgender lesbian teenage superhero. I don’t have to lower my standards, but I do have to lighten up on my literary-fiction-snob expectations and fine-tune my empathy. I’ve made a conscious choice to spend my money and time on this book, and I want to give myself every chance to enjoy it.
In Dreadnought by April Daniels, Danny is a superhero geek, knowledgeable about all the heroes and villains and the many in between, and Dreadnought is arguably the most powerful and revered of all. One day, Danny is in the wrong (or right, depending on your perspective) place at the wrong time and witnesses Dreadnought’s death in person. As he’s dying in Danny’s arms, Dreadnought transfers the source of his power to Danny, who undergoes an immediate transformation not only into a fledgling superhero but also into his ideal body: a female supermodel.
This presents something of a dilemma: Danny has always felt like a girl trapped in a boy’s body, and she’s overcome with excitement that her dream has come true even as she’s heartbroken that it came at the expense of Dreadnought’s life. Worse, she’s terrified of how her conservative, abusive father will react. She’s hit with conflict and confusion from all sides: her best friend David gets an uncomfortable crush on her, the Legion Pacifica argue over whether Danny should join them as the new Dreadnought, and her new friend Calamity takes her out on the town to rustle up some low-level criminals and casts doubt on the supposedly good intentions of the Legion. There’s no clear line between good and bad, and Danny struggles with whom to trust and how to assert what she wants from her new-found body and abilities.
Sometimes both the main character and the narrative style were a little too teenager-y. Some characters were too emphatically one-note. At times, the whole coming out process seemed too much like an afterschool special. I didn’t always believe Danny would behave how she did. Those were the points when I had to remind myself that this book wasn’t written for me, a middle-aged cis-gendered white gay man, and if I could look past those things, I could get more enjoyment from the story.
And I really did enjoy it. I liked the world that April Daniels has built here, and her overarching story was pretty satisfying. She can write action with the best of them, and the climactic scenes were riveting. This was her first book, and the first in a planned series, so it was often heavy on the exposition. Some of the scenes and characters were underdeveloped, but she really found her style and rhythm by the end, finishing strongly and making me anxious to read the next book.
At this point, I’d like to circle back to an important corollary to Ebert’s point about emotional connection: you don’t have to personally identify with characters and situations, but you can still connect if you have empathy for them. The world can be small and closed and defensive, or it can be big and open and curious. It’s our choice to make.