Historical fantasy at its peak: Xiran Jay Zhao’s Iron Widow
There are few books that can compare to so many things that make my eyes grow taller, but when someone tells me a new YA is like Pacific Rim, Neon Genesis Evangelion, The hunger Games, and every webtoon novel out there, I immediately figured out how to get my hands on that book. Iron widow does all of this and more, rewriting historical Chinese figures as leading men and women in a drama that far exceeds its historical significance.
This book is a very slight reinvention of Empress Wu; an often demonized figure in Chinese history who has become the nation’s only legitimate female sovereign. And when I say light, I really mean it: there are markers of Chinese politics, landscapes, and even other characters from the story, but if you’re hoping for a more direct account of Wu’s life, Iron widow is not this book.
This, however, does not diminish the impact of the vision of the book or of author Xiran Jay Zhao. Zhao is doing something deliberate here, using a classical Chinese literary method to tell his story. As Zhao points out in the foreword, there is a long tradition of using historical figures in fantasy novels, giving these history book men and women mythical status. they quote Investiture of the Gods, Travel west, and Roman of the Three Kingdoms like classic books that do exactly what they do: pick historical figures and throw them into wild and wonderful situations just for the sake of telling a good story. A modern Japanese example of this historic fantasy tradition is Onmyōji, a series of books that helped inspire the much more recognizable franchise… Pokémon.
All this to say that if you enter Iron widow expecting a political thriller aligned with Empress Wu’s recorded life starting as Emperor Taizong’s concubine, you might be disappointed. If you pick up this book hoping to be entertained by a sci-fi battleground set in a Chinese-inspired universe filled with robots, aliens, and ancient emperors in stasis, you will get exactly what you came for.
We follow Wu Zeitan as she begins her journey of revenge. From the first pages of this book, we meet a character in search of blood. She hopes to kill the boy who made his sister a concubine and, as a result, killed her while they were psychically bound together in a giant killing machine. When selected as a concubine herself, she enters the mechanical robot-monster, the Chrysalis Nine-Tailed Fox, and falls into a runaway state with the other pilot, the man who killed her sister. We’re aiming for less Gundam, more Zoid.
In the nebulous world of yin-yang where the consciousness of the pilots exists during battle, Zetian’s will dominates that of the other pilot. She destroys him, uses his soul as a battery for the Chrysalis, taking over the functions of the Fox as he battles the alien threat at the Huaxian border. And then the Fox docks, and Zetian emerges from the pilot’s seat, her sister’s murderer dead behind her, and laughs.
Wu Zetian rises from the ashes of a dead man and realizes that his blood is not enough.
And then she is paired with another man, Li Shimin, an alcoholic and a criminal who is the most powerful pilot in all of Huaxia. Zetian must learn to live with Shimin’s odd behavior and bad reputation, while also trying to figure out what it is like with a Chrysalis forcing so many women to die in her pilot room. As Zetian and Shimin work together, they harness their social image as murderous heroes and the power of their robot to fight against corrupt bureaucracy and Hundun alien forces.
This book continues. It’s truly a non-stop action novel, with romance, fighting, storytelling, and whatever else you want from an anime… I mean a book by YA. While a lot of the technical details of the world are swept under the rug, that’s not a huge detriment. There are giant, flying and transforming machines with different attributes according to the Chinese element system. There isn’t a lot of world building that will make this more or less understandable. Iron Widow is a book that demands that you take it seriously and without strings attached. You accept that this book is going to be crazy and you’re good to go. And it’s, in fact, a fucking wild ride.
Even though Zetian is mean, mean, and generally cruel, I was supportive of her all the time. She was justified in her rage, angry at a system that required her to be submissive even when she succeeded under all of their oppressive rules. She’s absolutely blinding, a character who comes forward with no apologies or explanations, and we love her for that.
There are many binarisms in the construction of the world which do not feel in accord with contemporary readers. I know that due to the deep ties to Chinese history and Confucianism, the societal lines are quite set in stone, but I didn’t feel the book went far enough to examine misogyny and transphobia. underlying these ideals. It is mentioned, and Zetian certainly has choice words about his own discrimination. This book does well without touching on all of the issues of historical patriarchy, but just as a warning to trans readers, the mood might not strike. It is worth noting that Iron widow challenges these stereotypes and the idea of fundamentalism in gender roles, but it is still shocking to read in the moment.
The book attempts to emphasize that despite society, both women and men can achieve greatness. The overwhelming misogyny and sexism of Zetian (and all the women of Iron widow) the face is pretty amazing, and there isn’t a lot of reasoning behind it except that Zetian lives in a corporation. This decision, coupled with the fact that Zetian has almost no real female allies, if any, gives her a sort of “unlike other girls” syndrome. While this wasn’t entirely unexpected given the unprecedented power of the historical Wu Zetian and the nature of YA in general, it still wasn’t my favorite thing about this book.
This comes into my second sticking point on Iron widow, which is entirely a throwaway opinion, and in no way detracts from my enjoyment of the book, but… I would like it to be an adult novel. Already Iron Widow is at the high end of YA; hundreds of women are forced to be concubines (and are subsequently routinely murdered) and spouses are forced to marry their attackers, already setting up a bizarre high school version Handmaid’s Tale. There are also scenes of torture, an alcoholic lead character, mentions of rape, sexual assault on the page, talk about suicide, multiple murders on the page, and gas lighting throughout.
Zhao previously mentioned (on Twitter and in the foreword) that their original project included even more of these topics and was a much longer manuscript. I can’t help but wonder what Iron widow would have seemed stripped of YA conventions, plunging into the uncomfortable and horrible from other perspectives, showing a society in turmoil rather than just a girl battling the system. There is nothing wrong with the novel addressing these topics for a YA audience, and I enjoyed it very much. Iron widow in its current iteration. I only lazily dream of the manuscript edited for an adult audience, which could meet the challenges of history rather than repeat them.
But this is not a review of an imaginary book. Iron widow was an amazing, fun and exciting novel, sometimes horrible to read, but in all the ways that make you fall in love with a character. The world-building is imaginative and explosive, with the bizarre mix of mecha battles and reimagined characters lighting up the fight scenes and adding new mythology to the historical fantasy. Zhao is an author who knows exactly what he wants to do and will sometimes jump on world building to make it happen. This only adds to the wonderfully frenetic pace of the book, and will serve to keep you on your toes as you cheer on Wu Zetian, the worst and best girl as she prepares to do her bloody, flawless job.
Iron widow is available from Penguin Teen.
Linda H. Codega is an avid reader, writer and fan. They specialize in media criticism and fandom and are also a short story writer and game designer. Inspired by magical realism, comics, the big screen and social activism, their writing reflects an innate curiosity and a deep attention and investment in media, fandom and the intersection of social justice and pop culture. . Find them on twitter @_linfinn.