‘Iron Widow’ Smashes Expectations and Patriarchy

There are some books that are quiet, meditative pieces on, say, the nature of love. The meaning of life. The depths of loneliness. How hope can soar and crash and rise again.

Xiran Jay Zhao’s Iron Widow is none of these things, and it’s proud of it.

The cover of Xiran Jay Zhao's Iron Widow, showing a fierce-looking Chinese girl in tight-fitting gold, black, and red clothes inside the wings of a giant bird.
The real pity is that this cover image doesn’t show the whole gorgeous piece that wraps around the spine and back of the book. Check out a physical copy if you can.

Zetian has lived to make herself as unattractive as possible so her family can’t get a good price selling her to the army to be a Chrysalis, a young woman whose qi is siphoned to power the huge robot creatures young men pilot against alien invaders. Chrysalises usually don’t live through battle; their sacrifice is considered essential for the war effort, and families benefit from the hefty payout from their daughters dying in war. Zetian doesn’t care about the war, but when her sister dies at the hands of a pilot, she pretties herself up and throws herself on the proverbial altar to have a chance at revenge.

She succeeds in a far more spectacular way than expected. She also learns a crucial lesson: that despite everything the powers that be tell the country, girls can pilot the robots, too. With their second-best robot pilot killed at Zetian’s hands, the army pairs her with the most powerful pilot of them all: Shimin, who murdered his entire family and is released from his prison cell only to fight. Rather than dying as his Chrysalis, Zetian and Shimin become a power couple on the battlefield, even if they don’t like each other very much. There are dangers other than aliens, though, and in order to survive the sabotage of generals and the attempts at revenge from the friends of the slain pilot, they have to think outside the box. Zetian enlists the help of a childhood friend, Yizhi, and embarks on a journey to make them superstars in the public eye as well as on the front lines.

I would be shocked, truly shocked, if Zhao’s original pitch for Iron Widow didn’t describe it as something like “Pacific Rim meets Hunger Games and set in futuristic China,” and that is a compliment. From the jump, giant, shape-shifting robots running on psychic vibes set the tone for a rollicking ride. The necessity for public sympathy and commercial value to protect our heroes from a treacherous, back-biting system gives sharp but not unfair commentary on how we assign value to the things that fill our collective newsfeeds. But Katniss Everdeen could only imagine the unapologetic anger and savviness that fills Zetian. There is no shame in anger, no thought of backing down, no fear of failure. Zetian is only unflinching determination for whatever it is she needs, or wants.

An excerpt from the publisher's summary of the book, advertising it as "Pacific Rim meets The Handmaid's Tale in this blend of Chinese history and mecha science fiction for YA readers."
Okay, I guess I’m half shocked.

This is not to say Zetian is a flat character—she learns, she grows, she is capable of a range of emotions—so much as it is that she is a character whose circumstances equate hesitation with death. Her survival depends on her being more than she appears to be, a quality that ends up being true of Shimin and Yizhi, too, as well as the entire concept of a robot army fighting alien invaders. Even Zetian, who knows how easily someone or something can be misjudged for what’s on the surface, is taken in by appearances more than once.

But not by the patriarchy that has a stranglehold on seemingly every part of her world. From her sister being sold into certain death to the way she is scolded for provoking her father into a rage to the necessity of girls and women dying for the fighting robots to operate, Zetian is tired of it and wants to tear all of it down. She knows all too well that it takes more than men enforcing the patriarchy for it to be successful; she has watched her mother and grandmother and other women cowering under it and encouraging her to do the same, and it was her grandmother who first broke her feet to bind them into the painful “lotus feet” she has to totter upon as an adult. Her anger is palpable—or maybe it just resonated with the anger I’ve felt myself while wrestling with unjust societal expectations.

This is not a book for keeping the peace. No, Iron Widow is a book for smashing the establishment like so many alien forces. The end comes abruptly and takes a distinct left turn, but it never needed to pull out a cliffhanger to get me to read the sequel. I’m here for the ride, wherever Zhao decides it goes.

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