Sunday 15 January 2017

Review: Dreadnought

Dreadnought Dreadnought by April Daniels
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I don't give five stars out lightly, but this book deserved them. At one and the same time a fine superhero tale and a startlingly powerful portrait of what it's like to be transgender, it weaves the two together seamlessly, and delivers both exciting plot and deep characterisation.

Danny has never felt like a boy, and so when the dying superhero Dreadnought passes his mantle on to the nearest bystander - Danny - the power transforms the teenager into Danielle.

She now has the basic Superman, or rather Supergirl, power set: flight, strength, invulnerability (slightly more limited than the Kryptonians). No heat vision, X-ray vision or freeze breath, though. Most of the possible variants on superpowers have already been rung over the past 80 years or so, and there's nothing startlingly new on that front here - there's even a passing mention of a billionaire with a utility belt and no powers - but that's fine. It's the personal journey of the superhero that we're concerned with here.

There certainly are a few familiar tropes: rescuing an airliner, for example. And when it comes to the transgender experience, there are some notes that anyone who's aware of what that community has to deal with will also find very familiar (because they really do happen all the time): the verbally and emotionally abusive, rejecting father; the "friend" who says terrible things; the radical feminist who refuses to accept a trans woman as a woman, who sees only a man invading women's space yet again. But all of these are dealt with in a way that I found emotionally true and deep. Seeing Danny simultaneously being a selfless, powerful, courageous superhero and thinking of herself as a selfish, powerless coward because of years of abuse was heartwrenching.

I can't give a higher recommendation than this: when I got to the end, if there had been a sequel available I would have bought it immediately. This book sets out to be a compelling superhero adventure and also an exploration of what it's like to be trans, and for my money succeeded admirably in both.

Speaking of money, I received (only) a review copy via NetGalley in exchange for my review.

View all my reviews

Monday 2 January 2017

My Top 16 Books for 2016

It's that time again: time to do a retrospective post on the best books I read in the previous year. Earlier instalments are here: my top 15 books for 2015 and my top 14 books for 2014.

I didn't read as much last year as in the previous two years, which surprised me a little when I saw the numbers. I wasn't as obsessive about noting and reviewing everything I read, and a couple of books I read didn't have Goodreads entries, but I don't think that made all of the difference between the 101 books I read in 2015 and the 77 in 2016; I was also busy writing, and wasn't commuting for most of the year (so I didn't listen to as many audiobooks, or read during lunchtime at work).

Goodreads doesn't seem to have the same graphic as it has the last couple of years - at least, I can't find it - but I managed to find the URL that gives me a list of the year's books (, for future reference), so I can do a similar summary.

I read 11 books out of 77 that got 5 stars, compared to 11 out of 101 in 2015 and 9 out of 104 in 2014, which is a good trend. I also read 12 3-star books (19 in 2015, 23 in 2014) and one 2-star book (2 in both 2015 and 2014), leaving 53 4-star books, by my calculation (68 in 2015 and 70 in 2014).

Either I'm getting better at picking books I like, or my standards are slipping. Either way, the bulk of the books I'm reading continue to get 4 stars, meaning I enjoyed them and they were well done, but they weren't so well done or so enjoyable that they deserved a fifth star. Three-star books I didn't dislike, but they were either lacking in execution or failed to enthuse me; a two-star book, for me, is pretty much a failure, neither well executed nor enjoyable, though showing some hint of potential that lifts it above one star. I haven't read a one-star book in several years, because I don't finish books that bad (and don't rate books I haven't finished).

So: the countdown. Let's start with the best of the 4-star books, the ones that almost made it across that 5-star threshold. Competition was fierce in this group, with only four places available, and several others almost made it.

Links are to my Goodreads reviews.

15. Knight Moves, Walter Jon Williams. One of Williams' complex, engaging meditations on the posthuman condition, which I enjoyed despite its occasional pessimism.

14. An Accident of Stars, Foz Meadows. Portal fantasy is back, and this is a fresh, contemporary take on a genre that dates back to the 19th century, but was particularly popular several decades ago. A diverse, and mostly female, cast struggle and are realistically impacted by the problems they face in a well-imagined world.

13. Burning Bright, Melissa McShane. Smoothly written, excellently edited, with an exciting and absorbing plot, this is Patrick O'Brien meets Julian May: psychic powers in the Regency British Navy. Misses out on five stars only because I didn't feel the worldbuilding had been thought all the way through.

12. Hallow Point, Ari Marmell. Noir and urban fantasy collide, pick themselves up and make a smart remark. A principled but pragmatic hero and a clever plot kept me glued to the pages.

Now the 5-star books. A really good crop this year, and it was hard to rank them.

11. Elements of Fiction Writing - Characters and Viewpoint, Orson Scott Card. The only nonfiction book in this year's top list, this guide to characterisation is written with insight and clarity. (From the days before Card went off the deep end.)

10. Ancillary Mercy, Ann Leckie. While not as amazing as the first book (because some of what makes it amazing is no longer a surprise), this is a worthy conclusion to the trilogy, beautifully layered and doing clever things with point of view. More of an unfolding of meaning than a conventional plot, something that's hard to do at novel length.

9. A Christmas Gone Perfectly Wrong, Cecilia Grant. This lovely little romance demonstrates that novellas aren't always just novels that haven't had enough development; sometimes they're tightly plotted, beautifully executed stories of exactly the right length.

8. Dreams of Distant Shores, Patricia McKillip. A collection of lyrical, beautifully imagined short pieces which demonstrate that magic doesn't have to have known rules if you're using it to bring the characters to realisations, not to solve their problems.

7. The Facefaker's Game, Chandler Birch. A gripping adventure for a character I wanted to see succeed, in a grimy, slightly steampunkish setting that's skilfully depicted.

6. Magonia, Maria Dahvana Headley. This author has perfect command of voice, as I noticed in the beautiful Runyonesque she published on a couple of years ago, and here that mastery is on full display - along with a suspenseful plot, vivid characters, and fantastical worldbuilding. Also a great reflection of the experience of living with a chronic illness.

5. The Long List Anthology, David Steffen. These short stories came close to Hugo glory, and they deserved it; emotionally powerful, excellently crafted, richly human and sparkling with imagination, they even managed to make me like some kinds of stories that I usually don't.

4. Futuristica, Volume 1, Chester W. Hoster. I set this above The Long List Anthology simply because the fresh, vigorous, engaging stories in this volume were more consistently to my taste. Clever mashups, trope twisting and up-to-the-minute science abound.

3. Darkhaven, A.F.E. Smith. Complex, conflicted, distinctive characters negotiate multiple intertwined subplots in impeccable prose to form a compelling story. 

2. Vigil, Angela Slatter. Avoids the risk of being just another cookie-cutter urban fantasy through flawless execution coupled with an unusual richness of development and variety in the characters' relationships. 

1. Chalice, Robin McKinley. As beautiful and emotionally resonant as you'd expect if you've ever read any of her other work, and set in a fascinating world.

Because two of the collections had male editors, this makes 7 out of 15 books with male authors or editors, and 8 with female authors (even though the content of those two collections is, by a small margin, majority female). I tend to read roughly 50:50 male and female authors, without setting out to do so, though I sometimes have runs of one or the other; 10 out of last year's 15 authors were male, and 4 out of 2014's 14, for comparison, so out of the 45 books that have made my top lists in the past three years, 21 are by, or are edited by, men.

I look forward to more excellent books in 2017.