‘Iron Widow’ by Xiran Jay Zhao Review: An Epic Historical Sci-Fi Adventure That Takes on the Patriarchy

Experienced science fiction readers, those new to the genre, and history buffs are sure to appreciate Xiran Jay Zhao’s epic debut novel, Iron Widow. Billed as a combination of The Handmaid’s Tale and Pacific Rim, Iron Widow is a historical fantasy, a re-imagining of the only female Emperor in Chinese history, Wu Zetian. 

Historians looking for a play-by-play reguiling of real events in the Emperor’s life will not find that in this story, instead, they’ll find a gorgeous character study set in this rich world. In the world of Iron Widow, the fictional land of Huaxia, 18 year-old Wu Zetian is on a quest to avenge the death of her sister.  The story is set in a viciously patriarchal and paternalistic society, in which boys and girls are paired up to pilot enormous magical robots called Chrysalises. 

Boys are treated as military heroes while the girls are expected to act as concubines and ultimately give their lives for the cause by dying as co-pilots in battle. Female pilots dying in battle is such a common occurrence that it is a widely accepted fact among the military leadership and the society at large. Against this backdrop is a brilliant commentary on the value of the lives of women and girls and how much society suffers when their inherent power is forcibly restrained.

Zhao is so talented at weaving Chinese history and mythology into the story. The Chrysalises that are the core of Huaxia’s military might are based off of characters from Chinese mythology, including the Nine-Tailed Fox, and the Moon Rabbit. They go through Digimon-esque evolutions and derive their power from one of the Five Elements, earth, metal, fire, water, and wood. They are used to fight the mecha aliens that live beyond the Great Wall. 

The strength of this story is in the characters. From the moment we meet our main character Zetian, we know she’s out for blood. She’s mean, often cruel and just generally unlikeable, and yet I found myself rooting for her every step of the way. The pure, unadulterated rage that Zhao captures through Zetian is just so relatable to all women fighting for our place among our own patriarchal society. This rage was taken seriously through the entire story, a refreshing change from seeing that same rage belittled in many fictional settings.

Zetian’s co-pilot is Li Shimin, an alcoholic pilot based on the historical Emperor Taizong of Tang. He is so flawed and mostly insufferable, and yet Zhao somehow makes us sympathize with him as a literal cog in a brutal war machine. Gao Yizhi is the ridiculously rich and sheltered childhood best friend of Zetian rounds out the cast of characters. He tries his very best to be supportive, while at first not fully understanding his role in this brutal society and how he contributes to its continuation. 

It was so incredibly refreshing to have an author, especially of an epic sci-fi fantasy, actually understand a love triangle, and what it is not. Specifically, it is not two cisgender heterosexual men pining after a heterosexual, cisgender woman. The real love triangle of all three main characters is so brilliant, salacious and relatable, the only disappointing part was that we to see even more of this relationship.

The science fiction genre can be a difficult one for new readers to appreciate and get into. However, Zhao’s world building is so accessible and well-thought out, first-timers and experienced fans of the scifi genre will have no problem leaping right into this futuristic world they have created. Those who already love the genre will appreciate the new takes on familiar tropes combined with historical drama and myth. The story is so rich and compelling, it will no doubt be adapted for the big screen one day very soon.

I would have loved to explore the world of Huaxia in greater depth, as it’s not only such a well-mapped out world, but also an excellent commentary on many aspects of our real modern world. YA novels tend to focus on the individual characters and story. Although this book does this so well, it would have been great to see the story go broader. The opportunities for social commentary were so well-explored through the characters themselves, and hopefully as the story continues we will see more commentary and fleshing out of the world itself. 

The ending of the story indicates the story is to be continued, and according to Zhao’s website, the second book in the duology is set to be released in the Fall of 2022. The story and characters are so perfectly set up for follow up, and it’s going to be exciting to see where they go next!

Iron Widow is available in bookstores now.

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