Xiran Jay Zhao is a gem, and if you have not picked up their debut novel or stumbled upon their social media channels you are missing out. There is something so magnetic about Zhao, and I find that they always earn my undivided attention. Iron Widow certainly ensnared me, and I was hooked on this fierce story from page one.
Wu Zetian is planning to get revenge or die trying after her older sister was killed at the hands of a Chrysalises pilot. In order to execute her plan, Zetian decides to join the ranks of pilot concubines and get close to him. She catches the pilot’s eye immediately, and when she joins him in battle, Zetian makes her move. As they both fight for control of the Chrysalises, Zetian overpowers her foe and kills him in the process. The world erupts into chaos as Zeitian emerges as the lone survivor after playing a huge role in the battle’s victory. A woman so powerful and dangerous cannot be trusted, so the chief strategists pair Zetian with their strongest pilot, Li Shimin. Shimin has a difficult past of his own, and feels more villain than hero, as his outrageous power often kills the concubines he’s paired with while achieving victory. Zetian and Shimin must learn to navigate their difficult predicament while also fighting the corrupt system that has doomed them.
The world that Xiran Jay Zhao created is simultaneously awesome and horrifying. The citizens who possess a high spirit pressure are recruited to pilot giant fighting robots called Chrysalises (think Gundam mobile suits). A boy and girl pair combine their Qi to power Chrysalises and fight off mecha aliens called Hunduns. Giant fighting robots are always cool but there is an ugly side that dims the glamour of these powerful machines. The male pilots are like celebrities being served by a tower of concubines who they force into battle. Men, who typically have higher spirit pressures, often overpower the minds of the women pilots and kill them in the process. For women, it’s an unfair system and they only join the ranks of concubines for two reasons. One, they have false hopes (generated by propaganda) that their spirit pressure is strong enough to survive. Second, girls are literally forced into service by their families who need to rid themselves of a daughter. It’s super messed up and immediately sets the tone for this book because…
Iron Widow is one giant middle finger to sexism. Zetian finds every avenue she can to fight back against the society and system that has used and abused women for generations. She’s angry all the time and has every reason to be. The world has literally worked against her from day one, so by the time she’s 18, Zetian is desperate and wild enough to try and upset the system. When faced with a decision, Zetian usually examines what a woman would be expected to do in her culture, and then does the exact opposite. But what I love about this story is how we see Zetian’s thought process. There are times where Zetian’s initial reaction is to respond the way a woman is groomed to act, but she recognizes the instinctual error immediately and course corrects. It shows the constant internal struggle of a person pushing back against expectations and rules society has placed on them. This examination added weight to Zetian’s actions and showcases how her choices are not always easy to make.
The book also explores gender and how society has constructed characteristics and roles into neat little and unrealistic boxes. Zetian defies these labels and we see her struggle against the box society has shoved her in. Iron Widow also features a polyamorous relationship between the three main characters, which truly makes my heart soar. Love triangles are only fun if everyone is involved, am I right? I enjoyed seeing these characters come together. There were beautiful moments filled with understanding as they each came to realize what they meant to one another. Zhao deftly brought along each character into the fold on their own time, in their own way and it was magical.
Iron Widow is fiercely awesome and I loved watching Zetian fearlessly rage against all those that opposed her. There were moments that I wish would have been explored more, like how the media and the rich exploited our pilot duo. Zetian especially gets put in an uncomfortable situation and I thought the blackmail as a result was resolved quickly. The ending also came together fast and I would have loved to savor the big reveals more. Neither of these are knocks on the book, just personal preferences, and could be very well overlooked when you read this great story. Overall this is a powerful statement of a book dressed with mecha robots and fascinating power. It’s a unique story that packs a punch, and I’ll be patiently waiting for the sequel.
Rating: Iron Widow – 7.5/10
Not only is Xiran Jay Zhao a great new writer you should keep on your radar, but they are also a fantastic social media follow. I highly recommend you check out their channels because the content is brilliant and features everything from Iron Widow memes to Chinese culture: