April Daniels. Sovereign. New York: Diversion Books, 2017
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 epic space battles involving the Hubble Space Telescope
You know what’s really fun? Reading superhero stories while listening to my Chillectronic station on Pandora. The eerie, techno, sometimes surreal strains of Tycho, Monolake, Yppah, and Shawn Lee’s Ping Pong Orchestra are awesome accompaniments to superhero battles.
Sovereign begins nine months after the events of Dreadnought. Danny is officially Dreadnought #4, in charge of protecting New Port from criminals and supervillains, and she’s loving every fighting minute of it. After years of emotional abuse at home, she’s finally free, and she finally has the power.
But things aren’t perfect for the fifteen-year-old rookie hero. She may be “mightier than a battleship, faster than a jet, and so on,” but she still has to deal with the media hounding her about her private life, the transphobic Graywytch still trying to screw things up for her, the increasing tension between herself and Sarah/Calamity, and oh yeah, there’s this huge mass of “exotic matter” approaching from space that could affect the magic and superpowers of everyone on Earth.
So, there are plenty of new battles for Danny to fight, but Sovereign also does a great job following up on the conflicts it introduced in Dreadnought. Danny may be physically free of her parents, but all those years of abuse don’t just disappear. The emotional scars are affecting her in battle, and the people around her are beginning to worry that Danny is abusing her powers.
“Do you know how to make someone become a dangerously violent person?” Doc stops pacing. “It’s basically a recipe. You hold them down and treat them like shit. Destroy their self-esteem, strip away all their pride, all their self-respect. Then you give them a chance to solve a problem with violence, and when they do, you immediately reward them.” Doc takes a breath. “Does that sound like anyone you know?” 
This is an important part of the world-building in Dreadnought and Sovereign. The story not only raises questions about where magic and superpowers come from, and how “capes” have to work with the regular law enforcement and abide by government regulations, but also just what happens to someone who can suddenly superpower their way out of their problems.
A few more awesome things:
- I mentioned the world-building in terms of the philosophical and ethical questions surrounding superpowers, and the tense relationship between “capes” and the police, but there’s also the awesome fact that Danny isn’t actually the first or only transgender superhero in this world – she’s just the most “mainstream” one, and she realizes pretty soon how her rise to fame is affecting the other trans “capes” who’ve been working longer, with fewer social or political rewards.
- And then there’s also just these really awesome little aspects of this society, like the fact that superheroes have their own global convention every few years in Antarctica – a convention with vendor booths selling hypertech gadgets and “bystander insurance,” and panels on superhero involvement in social media.
- I totally called it! The good ship Calaminought is full steam ahead, and as much as I like Dreadnought for focusing on non-romantic conflicts, I’m also fully in favor of Danny/Sarah being explored in the sequels.
- This is the kind of story that can really pull off the present tense p.o.v. because it’s full of blow-by-blow action that feels even more intense in the present tense.
- The one thing I’m really ambivalent about is how freaking long it takes Doc to get Danny proper help after she realizes Danny might be abusing her powers. She keeps acting surprised every time Danny goes too far, and wondering if maybe she should be benched for a while, but… well, ok, I get it. There’s this life-and-death situation that really needs to be dealt with, and it seems like Danny’s the only one who can deal with it at the moment, and also Doc is dealing with her own demons that are clouding her judgment, so maybe her slowness in getting Danny help isn’t so unbelievable. It’s just really unfortunate.
- There is one issue I wish Sovereign had picked up again from Dreadnought. Doc Impossible briefly explained the situation between the old Legion and Calamity’s father, which raised questions about superheroes’ right and responsibility to hold the government accountable. I would have expected that to still be a sore spot between Calamity and Doc, and between Sarah and Danny, something they’d continue to debate, but the issue was just dropped after Dreadnought.
- Ok, I can’t really talk about the final conflict without spoiling, so I’ll just say that the effects of said conflict are kind of confusing; the story could have been clearer on why some characters were affected and some weren’t.
- I don’t like the way Danny refers to her friend Charlie as “a skinny black kid” when she first introduces him to us, and comments that his mother has “a black June Cleaver vibe going on,” instead of just saying she has “a June Cleaver vibe going on.” It feels disrespectful to emphasize a character’s skin color as the first and most distinctive thing the reader should notice about them. It might be different if race were an issue in the story, something that Danny would have reason to point out… although, now that I think about it, she did grow up with a homophobic a$$hole shouting derogatory things at her, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he had some pretty racist attitudes as well, which affected Danny’s view of the world. But if that were the case, it should have been explicitly addressed as something problematic that Danny realized about herself.
From the Teen Brigade and Young Avengers, to the Jersey City super community, to the new Legion Pacifica, I’ve met some really kick-ass superheroes this summer. Sovereign and Dreadnought are awesome additions not only to the LGBT-centric superhero sphere, but to the superhero genre as a whole, addressing age-old questions about the ethics of “beat[ing] people up for money,” how far a superhero can and should go in the name of justice, and when justice really becomes catharsis. Basically, just because you can punch a person into next year doesn’t mean you should.
I’m not sure if April Daniels plans to continue the Nemesis series; as far as the “Nemesis” aspect of it goes, there was a pretty good sense of closure at the end of Sovereign. But I could certainly see there being more to explore in this world (like the aftermath of that final conflict, for one thing. It was kind of a big deal). If Daniels keeps going, I plan to keep reading.
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