While picking up a feminist SFF, some might expect the men in these stories to find an independent place for themselves within these fictional worlds. Because that’s true feminism for many, right? We can’t have a heroine who drives the male protagonists’ arc by herself, with her strength, on her power. Of course, this isn’t necessarily bad because men can be feminists too, but people tend to forget that not every feminst tale must unravel with a certain calm that is supported by a changing world view or with the help of those in the system—some feminist stories must crash systems, upend worlds, and cause absolute chaos through a determined female lead. Iron Widow does exactly this.
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It’s interesting to see this debut play out in a futuristic and fantastical world yet find roots in history and culture, as seen in the author’s note: “the system of female subjugation in Iron Widow is actually more closely inspired by Chinese harem stories…of women who, trapped in this nightmarish system, use every resource available to them to rise higher and survive.” In a Chinese-influenced society, humans are constantly clashing with the Hunduns—giant aliens who fly and brutally attack. Humans fight them through Chrysalises—war machines shaped like mythical creatures and powered by the qi of two pilots. On a silhouette of the yin-yang balance, the female power and the male power serve respectively; drawing on their qi energy, they attack through this machine.
Wu Zetian is forced by her family to become a pilot concubine, which means she must serve as a co-pilot to one of the mecha pilots. But the pairing never survives, for the female typically dies in battle when the male pilot drains the entire qi off her. In this world, much like the past and present of the real one, females are sacrificial and this system and attitude takes away Zetian’s older sister. The narrator and protagonist —who is a fictionalised version of the only woman to rule China as empress in over 3,000 years of Chinese history— wants revenge and this desire of her drives her to not only become a concubine-pilot but even murder the star pilot, Yang Guang, who she believes is respomsibe for the death of her sister. Surprisingly, Zetian unintentionally kills him inside the Chrysalis during her very first battle.
The furious government pairs her up with an alcoholic, criminal, and the most powerful pilot in Huaxia, Li Shimin. Forced together yet finding a sense of painful commonality between themselves, the two decide to fight against the Hunduns and the corrupt, discriminatory government. Things complicate but also work even more in their favour when Zetian’s childhood love, Gao Yizhi, makes a reappearance and uses his influence for good. With action-packed battles, political conspiracies, refusal of gender binaries or conformities, absolute denial of systems, intriguing plot twists, and cathartic feminism, this debut delivers exactly what it promises: an unapologetic portayal of a survivor’s rage.
Zetian is ruthless and doesn’t hold back, whether when she must physically annihilate her enemies or when she must verbally hold a mirror to someone. She truly reads like an anti-heroine who is clear about what she wishes to avenge but still shows her vulnerability when she gradually discovers how she must avenge. The buildup from an angry desire to avenge a closed one to an unmissable need to change an entire system makes a main character worthy of unbeatable attention. Of course, this particular theme will remind young adult fans of The Hunger Games as the plot majorly revolves around a hierarchically lower person being forced into battle and them fighting all odds to survive and transpose a broken world for a better, more equal world. Despite all the anger that fuels this New York Times bestseller, the story turns hopeful with every page.
Against the backdrop of an exciting world building that doesn’t rely too much on lengthy prose, it also follows The Hunger Games on the idea of a love triangle between a hardened survivalist fighter and a gentler, smarter baker but solves the problem for fans of such dynamics: it forms a triad and unravels a polyamorous romance where Zetian shines as a YA protagonist who doesn’t have to waste too much time on the inner conflict of choosing a male counterpart, and can instead shatter rigid boundaries of both love and gender —with Shimmin slowly recovering from his traumas and burning down the world alongside her, and Yizhi baking pastries for her after a harrowing fight and using his rich, influential power to protect the other two. The clear communication that commences this relationship makes it even more worth cheering for.
The author makes it clear through their introduction that Iron Widow is science fiction, not historical fantasy or alternate historical fiction —which impresses because while the rise in fantasy by authors of colour is excellent to witness, the slower growth in sci-fi by them is an entire genre yet to be fully explored through a cultural lens that doesn’t tie down non-Western empires or pre-colonial societies to something “historical” or fantastical. Overall, Iron Widow is intimidating, unapologetic, and full of rage —in the best way possible— for how it follows a young female character growing from abuse and pushing that pain of forced sacrificial femininity in a patriarchal society out into the world, rather than surviving in a palatable and calmer manner that the demographic is usually used to. The epilogue leaves with a shocking cliffhanger!
Iron Widow, Xiran Jay Zhao
Penguin Teen, September 2021
Note: A review copy was acquired via the publicist.