This is not a good book. I don’t mean it’s not well written, because Xiran Jay Zhao is a master of their craft and has exploded into the publishing world with a stunning and ambitious debut. But if you’re looking for a story filled with light, joy, and lawful “goodness,” this book is not for you. The protagonist, Zetian, would not describe herself as good, either. She chooses violence over peace, anger over quiet, rebellion over submission, vengeance over forgiveness. She is not the type of person you’d normally want for a role model, but it’s easy to understand how she got there, to commiserate, and to root for her success. Her journey is one I cannot tear my gaze from.
Iron Widow takes place in a sci-fi world inspired by ancient China—complete with misogyny and foot binding—but with giant, human-controlled mechas, called Chrysalises, that take the shape of mythical creatures. In this Pacific Rim meets The Handmaid’s Tale, the world is under attack by aliens referred to as Hunduns, and humanity fights back by adapting their technology for themselves. Of course, only men are “strong” enough to pilot the Chrysalises, and women serve as co-pilots who often die after a single battle. Thus, the male pilots are viewed as celebrities and the females are treated like concubines, disposable and unimportant.
Enter: Wu Zetian, determined to avenge her sister, who was killed by one of these pilots. Nothing, not even love, will stop Zetian from her mission, though her quest for vengeance is just the beginning of her story.
Title: Iron Widow (Iron Widow #1)
Author: Xiran Jay Zhao
Publisher: Penguin Teen
Publish Date: September 21, 2021
Content Tags: Science Fiction | Author of Colour | LGBTQ+ | Disability | Protagonist of Colour | Non-Western World | Polyamory | Giant Mechas
Summary: The boys of Huaxia dream of pairing up with girls to pilot Chrysalises, giant transforming robots that can battle the mecha aliens that lurk beyond the Great Wall. It doesn’t matter that the girls often die from the mental strain.
When 18-year-old Zetian offers herself up as a concubine-pilot, it’s to assassinate the ace male pilot responsible for her sister’s death. But she gets her vengeance in a way nobody expected—she kills him through the psychic link between pilots and emerges from the cockpit unscathed. She is labeled an Iron Widow, a much-feared and much-silenced kind of female pilot who can sacrifice boys to power up Chrysalises instead.
To tame her unnerving yet invaluable mental strength, she is paired up with Li Shimin, the strongest and most controversial male pilot in Huaxia. But now that Zetian has had a taste of power, she will not cower so easily. She will miss no opportunity to leverage their combined might and infamy to survive attempt after attempt on her life, until she can figure out exactly why the pilot system works in its misogynist way—and stop more girls from being sacrificed.
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A Fascinating Magical-Scientific System
Normally, I’m hesitant about a magic system (or, as the author put it in an interview, a “magical-scientific” system) that works differently depending on whether you are a male or female. The Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan functions this way, in which the male side of the One Power (a.k.a. magic) is called saidin and the female side is called saidar, and they work slightly differently (saidin is described as a fight to use and saidar is about “surrendering”). Unfortunately, such a magic system doesn’t make room for non-binary identities. What if you’re neither male nor female? What if you’re both? What if you’re somewhere in between?
To my delight, Wu Zetian poses this exact question in the first chapter, wondering what would happen if a male took the lower “yin” chair in a Chrysalis and a female took the higher “yang” chair. It was at this point that I buckled my seatbelt, because I knew I was in for a ride.
The magical-scientific system plays off Chinese medicinal elements like qi (life force) and acupuncture to power the Chrysalises. The mechas also have powered up forms that are obviously inspired by anime, and I can’t get enough of them. The Hundun vs. Chrysalises battles are a slice.
An Anti-Hero I Can Root For
You can tell from the summary alone that this is a feminist story, and I’m here for it. The oppression is real in this world, with females being treated as second-class citizens at best and slaves/concubines at worst. Zetian’s family are horrid towards her, and it’s no wonder that she doesn’t care whether they will be punished for her crime. She does some horrifying things in the name of equality, but it’s hard not to root for her, considering no one would bat an eye if a pilot murdered her in front of them.
The Disability Rep!
“WHAT?” I yelled at my e-reader as I got to the part where Zetian describes her grandmother forcing her to walk, barefoot, over ice and snow when she was five years old, and then breaking her feet so they folded in half. Forever after, Zetian has what are known as “lotus feet,” a mark of social status in her culture, and she can’t walk without pain. What a terrifying custom, I thought. I wonder how the author came up with it. Later, I discovered that Zhao didn’t come up with it. Foot binding and lotus feet are literally something that upper class people did in ancient China, and that makes it even more horrifying.
As a disabled person, I love seeing disability rep in fiction done well, and Zhao nails it. Zetian’s feet are not the center of the story (so many stories with disabled people are all about their condition, and I’m tired of it—I don’t want to be completely defined by my condition and appreciate reading about people like me going on adventures). At first, Zetian walks with a cane, and later, due to another injury, she’s in a wheelchair for much of the time. She experiences physical and emotional struggles due to her condition, including frustration when people help her and when she’s unable to do simple things, like walking, on her own. Her joy at being able to “walk” with no pain when she pilots a Chrysalis is tangible.
This was a book I thought about for days after I finished, and will think about for days to come. It’s an action-packed, breathtaking science fantasy story, and I highly recommend it, as long as you don’t require your protagonist to be a dainty do-gooder. Wu Zetian won’t stop until the world is on fire.
My Reading Experience
Thanks to Penguin Teen / Netgalley for an advanced copy for review!
About Xiran Jay Zhao
“I’m a 20-something meme-loving weeb from Vancouver, Canada who is somehow becoming a published sci-fi/fantasy author. Most of my books are mashups that contain tropes from both genres. I’m a 1st generation immigrant from small town China, and I’m currently in between undergrad and grad school for biochem / disease research. I spend too much time and money on skincare and makeup. If you’re not careful, I could talk to you for hours about anime, books, or Chinese history.
Also, I am a Certified Meme Lord TM whose shitposts have been featured on Vice and ComicBook.com. I’m not joking.”