Revolution has always been a major theme across literature, and nearly every young adult novel features the concept in some way. Stories are full of characters challenging the status quo and pushing back against injustice. However, there is usually a limit, a disconnect, which separates the injustices on the page from the injustices in the real world. Mainstream readers can enjoy a series such as The Hunger Games without connecting the dots between the world in the novels to the real world. Whenever a book comes along that does challenge its readers to think critically about our own reality and history, there can be hesitancy. Publishers do not think it would sell well, publicists worry about potential backlash, and more. Yet, there is an audience for literature such as that, literature that combines entertainment with real revolution, and that audience is getting larger and more vocal every year, hungry for more.
Iron Widow is Xiran Jay Zhao’s debut novel, and an explosive debut novel at that, gripping readers in a vice rom page one and not letting them go, even when the last page is turned. A first-generation Chinese-Canadian immigrant, Zhao gained attention for their online presence before the book was announced. Through twitter, tiktok, youtube, and Instagram, they have shared fashion, cosplay, lessons on Chinese history and culture, and pop culture insights. They are also known for having one of the best author photos around, with an amazing image featuring Zhao posing in a cow onesie due to a promise she made to friends in college, who likely never expected it to ever happen. As an aside, my own friends, after seeing Zhao’s author photo, have made me promise to dress in a turtle onesie if I ever publish a novel. Despite the popularity of Iron Widow—having remained on the New York Time’s best sellers list for five weeks and counting at this time—Zhao has been very open and honest about its many rejections, as well as her experience in the publisher world. In many ways, the existence of social media has been detrimental, but everyday Zhao demonstrates ways that it can be utilized for more.
Iron Widow is a viscerally angry book taking place in a fantasy world heavily influenced by Chinese history and culture. At the outset, Zhao stated they were aiming to write an alternate take on the rise of Wu Zetian, the only female empress in Chinese history. In the world of Zhao’s novel, the land of Huaxia, once an incredibly powerful and expansive human civilization, has been reduced due to constant war with the Hunduns, primordial beings from Chinese mythology known for their shapeless, faceless forms. The interpretations of these beings are plentiful, but Iron Widow reimagines them as celestial monsters looking to consume the qi present in the world, partially mindless and coming from the stars. The Marvel movie, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings had a very different take, positioning one as a cute, fuzzy animal sidekick to Ben Kingsley’s character. The humans in Huaxia, however, live in fear of the Hundun menace. Before the beginning of the novel, humans learned that they could harvest Hundun corpses to create their own monsters, the Chrysalises. Giant transforming robots constructed of spirit metal and requiring two pilots to pilot. By this point, it should be apparent the Zhao wears her nerdiness with pride on her sleeve. The military in the novel is highly patriarchal, with all pilots being men accompanied by concubine-pilots. Whereas a movie like Pacific Rim posits that both pilots must be perfect matches for each other, the military in Huaxia instead, essentially, sacrifices girls to feed the Chrysalises and bring back their male pilots alive from the battlefield. A highly patriarchal and detrimental system, but one which has dominated for hundreds of years.
Iron Widow is told from the first-person point-of-view of Wu Zetian, our heroine and protagonist. When we first meet her, Zetian is living in a small, rural village near the Great Wall which separates Huaxia from Hundun territory. She is in the process of beautifying herself, preparing to be sold to the military as a concubine-pilot, removing the unibrow which has prevented her from this fate. However, as we quickly learned, something has changed. Zetian’s sister, prior to the start of the book, was murdered by the pilot she had been given to. Not sacrificed in the heat of battle to feed his Chrysalis, but murdered. Zetian resolves to join the military, knowing that she will be given to this same pilot, with the full intention of killing him as soon as the opportunity arises. From the outset, we want to see Zetian succeed. Living inside her head throughout these pages, readers see the world as she sees it. Men, both poor and powerful abuse and devalue women every day, using them to prop up a destructive patriarchal system which squanders the potential of half the population. Zetian requires a cane to walk due to her feet being broken and bound, and her disability is never magically cured or ignored as the story progresses. There are times when Zetian’s cool rage is temporarily tempered as she learns more and more about the world, but each new revelation only serves to strengthen her resolve to break the system by force. Readers begin rooting for her from the start, and each of her infrequent kills as the story progresses is incredibly cathartic.
Although Iron Widow is presented in Zetian’s voice, she is not the only main character. At the same time we meet her, Zhao introduces readers to Gao Yizhi, the fifth son of a powerful media mogul and an awful person in his own right. Despite coming from vastly different social strata, Yizhi and Zetian are close friends, with the potential for something more if circumstance were not standing in their way. Later, we meet Li Shimin, the Iron Demon, and the most powerful pilot in the Huaxian military. He is also a literal death row inmate, having killed nearly his entire family. Kept in chains, a collar, and a muzzle, Shimin is like a caged, rapid animal when we first meet him. However, as the most powerful pilot, he is an incredible asset that the military cannot relinquish. To ensure that he is always able to battle, he is paired with a steady stream of girls. As we learn, none of them make it through a battle alive. After revenge arrives for Zetian quickly and unexpectantly, she is paired with Shimin by the military; to either kill or her, break her, or kill him. But, as the novel progresses, Shimin and Yizhi’s relationship with Zetian, and with each other, serve to peel back the layers of their character and expose who they really are. Shimin proves to be a much softer person, while Yizhi reveals his hard edges. The relationship between these three, and the potential for an amazingly powerful polycule, forms a cornerstone of the story, and Zhao is excellent at developing their characters in such a way to make that happen.
Every story needs an antagonist, and Zhao provides. With the Hunduns, they give us the classic monsters for the giant robots to fight, but there is always the sense that there is something more to that story. Humans in Huaxia are taught that the Hunduns came from the stars to consume their planet, and that they are mindless creatures. Yet, whenever the Chrysalises come into physical contact with them, the emotions of the Hunduns are conveyed through the spirit metal of the Chrysalises, harvested from Hundun corpses. Bordering on solid thoughts, the presence of these emotions proves there is more than meets the eye. And, while we are told of the danger of the Hunduns, Zhao never actually shows them of being much of a threat for most of the novel. Instead, they fall to the superior technology and tactics of the human military. So, instead, who is the main antagonist? For Zetian, Shimin, and Yizhi, it is the human structures and systems that allow generations of women to be exploited and abused for the sake of maintain the power of men. Patriarchal systems are designed with cruelty to women in mind, and Zetian is constantly exposed to the evidence of this throughout Iron Widow. Concubine-pilots are offered up as food to robots, women walk on feet destroyed by the binding process, and are treated as less than in every instance. Zhao also does an excellent job at showing how patriarchy does not just harm women, but everyone, even men, through the experiences of Yizhi and Shimin. However, Zhao also never lets us forget the Hunduns…
Iron Widow is the kind of book that you cannot just put down, as each chapter builds on the momentum created during the previous. It is a viscerally angry novel in the best of ways, raging at destructive systems and structures that no one seems willing to fight against or break down. While it is a blend of science-fiction and fantasy, those elements are not really the central point of the novel. Rather, Zhao uses genre to connect with something much more realistic. That is not to say the book is without action. The battles between Hunduns and Chrysalises and engaging and thrilling, as readers experience both the fear of combat and the elation of victory. Iron Widow is also relentless. Zhao keeps the drama high, ensuring that it is never enough to read just one chapter. By the time readers reach the end, the book is moving at such an incredible, relentless pace, escalating during the final few chapters. Thankfully, Zhao has already confirmed a sequel to their debut novel, even while they work on their next project, a middle-grade book titled Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor, set for release next year. It is a testament to their talent that Zhao leaves readers who have finished Iron Widow with an elevated heartbeat through an ending that can only leave us desperately wanting more. But patience will make turning to the first page of their next book all the sweeter.
Iron Widow can be found in store, online, or wherever books are sold
Total Read Time: 14 Days
Next on the List: Cast in Secrets and Shadow, by Andrea Robertson