Iron Widow by Xiran Jay Zhao
Rock the Boat, ebook, £4.99
Reviewed by Minna Nizam
Iron Widow by Xiran Jay Zhao (they/them) is a science fiction fantasy novel that is imbued in classic Chinese history, with themes of feminism. The story is a reimagining of Wu Zetian’s time as a concubine during Chinese Imperial rule, which focuses on her rise to power. Pitched as Pacific Rim meets Handmaid’s Tale, this story critiques the patriarchal system in charge of a mixed Western and Eastern universe. The book revolves around three major characters, Shimin, Yizhi, and Zetian.
Each of these protagonists has an incredible backstory, but it is Zetian’s story that is the most compelling. Her start in this world is as a peasant, and after her sister is assassinated by one of the Ace head pilots in her society, she volunteers herself as a concubine in order to get her revenge.
Zetian is an intense protagonist—normally in her world, women are sacrificial lambs used as pawns to power giant mecha machines, called Chrysalises. They die because the intense mental strain takes their life—usually, it is men who power these giant robots, and women that are cast off to power the machines, ala Darling in the Franxx.
Zetian is the only character who successfully uses her mech powered by her two lovers, Shimin and Yizhi. Perhaps one of the best aspects of this story, is the destruction of classic Young Adult tropes—in Iron Widow, instead of a clichéd love triangle, all of the main trio are paired together. This is where Xiran Jay Zhao shines in their writing. You can tell that there was a lot of thought put into making this romance extra special. Zetian doesn’t use her lovers as pawns, there’s an equal give and take relationship.
Although there is a lot of doom and gloom in this book, mostly because of the aliens that threaten to destroy Zetian’s society, Zetian still makes her own way into Iron Widow. She is tough, she is no-nonsense, and she is distinctly a feminist. She fights for women like her, while also treating Yizhi and Shimin as her equals. All in all, this debut by Xiran Jay Zhao is fantastic. They prove themself as a new author through encapsulating their own interests–anime, manga, science fiction, and Chinese history, in order to create a new world that fights the patriarchy. It gives rise to strong characters of color, taking traditional YA tropes and turning it on its head.