I was sold on the idea of Xiran Jay Zhao’s Iron Widow from the description of a mash-up of Pacific Rim (giant robots whomping monsters) and The Handmaid’s Tale (a dystopian world where the oppressed/women fight for recognition and agency). As I got further into the story, I felt rewarded, as it blossomed into a complex world where the protagonists exemplified non-traditional romantic connections, challenged ingrained views on racism and addiction, and shattered the common portrayal of strong women needing to stand alone. Each plot development startled and awed me, and while Iron Widow is designed as a standalone (so far), I can see the potential to continue Zetian’s meteoric rise to power (especially since she is loosely based on a female Chinese Tang Dynasty emperor, Wu Zetian).
I’ve noticed that many of the books I’ve read and appreciated this year (and last) focus on female rage becoming the focal point for transformation and claiming a degree of control. Zetian fits into this mold with her fierce desire to shake off the subservient female ideal with painfully beautiful bound feet and carefully groomed features. She’s not above using society’s expectations to score a place as a concubine, carefully hiding her weapons as harmless accessories, something no man would ever inspect carefully. Zetian never shies away from embracing her inner darkness, as long as she advances towards a goal (first avenging her elder sister’s murder, later forging a new place for women in her world). Given her intensity, it is no surprise that the men drawn into her orbit, Yizhi and Shimin, embody gentler characteristics and fragility. Neither would be characterized as overtly feminine, but they could not function as a triad without being open to a bond with each other, as well as the formidable Zetian. The development of how they complement and develop each other’s personalities and goals is less cinematic, but just as important as the action.
At this point, I’m sure someone is screaming at the computer screen, wanting to know if I will discuss the promised giant robots, and yes, Virginia, there are mecha. The pilot/concubine pairings are used to fuel immense battle armors known as Chrysalises, which this version of China uses to defend its civilizations against the alien Hundun. Ironically, the “spirit metal” used to build each Chrysalis is composed of the exoskeletons of defeated Hundans. Human chi powers each robot, which is why both young men and women are screened for their primary and secondary chi strengths, as well as base ability before being paired. Couples with strong compatibility may successfully transform their Chrysalis in battle into superior forms of the base creature (i.e., turtle, fox, dragon, phoenix, etc). I would love to see this in animated form. (I don’t think live-action could capture the magic of this type of transformation even with current special effects.)
Again, I’ve spent much of my review talking about my favorite aspects of Iron Widow and not the overall plot, but what’s the fun in knowing everything going in? There are mecha, a tough-as-nails country girl filled with existential rage, the two young men who both love and fear her in equal measure but want her to be happy, an unexplainable war with alien creatures, and a complex battle system set against the backdrop of an alternate history China. I’m not sure you can distill that down to a meaningful elevator pitch. If any of this sounds like your catnip, pick up Iron Widow and experience the world through Zetian’s eyes. I couldn’t put it down, and I hope Xiran Jay Zhao has more stories to tell, be they in Zetian’s world or others.
5 Remote Emperor’s Tombs out of 5
Creative Team: Xiran Jay Zhao (author)
Publisher: Penguin Random House Canada, Penguin Teen
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