TLDR: Wu Zetian, China’s only female Emperor, is the inspiration for the Zetian of this book, a girl who is furious at how unjust the world is towards women. The setting here is exquisite: ancient China reimagined into science-fiction, where aliens have invaded, and the defence against them is qi-powered robots. It’s Pacific Rim meets She Who Became the Sun, and all of it is a joy to read. The star of this book is not just Zetian, but her anger. She faces truly horrific misogyny – the core premise of humanity’s defence is that girls give up their lives, constantly – and, I think, responds to it with rightful anger. Zetian never backs down, never refuses to act, and so, she single-handedly propels the plot along, forcing it in her wake.
Never has the phrase aren’t you tired of being nice? applied so well.
Iron Widow by Xiran Jay Zhao
Synopsis: The boys of Huaxia dream of the celebrity status that comes with piloting Chrysalises – giant transforming robots that battle the aliens beyond the Great Wall. Their female co-pilots are expected to serve as concubines and sacrifice their lives.
When 18-year-old Zetian offers herself up as a concubine-pilot, her plan is to assassinate the ace male pilot responsible for her sister’s death. But on miraculously emerging from the cockpit unscathed after her first battle, the Iron Widow sets her sights on bigger things. The time has come to take on the entire patriarchal military system.
I don’t rate the books I review on here in any way, except when I add them to Goodreads. It is not a very thought-out rating, but this one deserved nothing less than five stars. It’s excellent from start to finish, and I was very glad to get to the end and realise there will, in fact, be a sequel (I had thought it was a standalone).
The world building in this book is fantastic, and the author strikes a very good balance between explanation of it and getting on with the plot, which I think is tricky to do. The premise, China in the Tang Dynasty yet invaded by alien-like creatures, is absurdly clever, and I really enjoyed the author’s links back to Chinese literature through it, grounding this fantasy story in culture quite easily. For example, the mech-robots that characters pilot against the aliens take on various animal forms both of the zodiac and myth, from tigers to nine-tailed foxes to dragons. A monkey one is even given to the Sun Wukong of Journey to the West, while a dragon is given to the dragon emperor.
To explain the plot a little better: humanity’s defence against the aliens are these robots, which are powered by qi. Boys wishing to pilot these robots are tested for the strength of their qi and then assigned to one accordingly. Girls, meanwhile, also tested for the strength of their qi, are instead given the title of ‘concubine-pilots.’ As the robots need a lot of strength to power, the boys take the qi of the girls entirely. Effectively, killing them.
To become a concubine-pilot is welcomed as an honour by most citizens, not least because families are paid well if a girl does so. Zetian, in this book, starts already hating the job. Her older sister was pressured into becoming such a pilot by their family, and was killed by the boy pilot she was assigned to. More, Zetian thinks, families are given the lie that girls with enough qi can become partners with the boys instead, throwing their lives away for a foolish hope. The story starts with Zetian plucking her eyebrows, finally giving into the pressure to look beautiful enough to be a concubine-pilot, yet even this is her act of rebellion. She only plans to kill the pilot who killed her sister.
I loved Zetian’s character. As I said above, she forces the plot in her wake, entirely fed-up with the lot delivered to women in her world, meant only as willing sacrifices to whatever fate society deems appropriate. You’re never quite allowed to forget this, either. For example, he practise of foot-binding, forcing girls’ feet small, doesn’t allow her to walk properly, and so Zetian is not only in constant pain, she mourns the freedom barred from her. More potently, her feet were broken by her grandmother as a girl, and so Zetian is forced to acknowledge the part the women who should have loved her played in the cruelty of her upbringing.
“How do you take the fight out of half the population and render them willing slaves? You tell them they’re meant to do nothing but serve from the minute they’re born. You tell them they’re weak. You tell them they’re prey. / You tell them over and over, until it’s the only truth they’re capable of living.”
One of the things I enjoyed most about Zetian’s character is that she is never a ‘not like other girls’ type. There is one point, early on, where a male pilot treats Zetian kindly, tells her softly she is not like the other girls he has come across, is gentle. Without getting into spoilers, this whole act is turned on its head masterfully. As Zetian says, learning, “It would not be noble or respectable just because I did it alone.”
The other point to mention here is that the book does contain a love triangle, of sorts, making it very YA. I’m not a huge fan of the trope, but I have to admit it is written well here, and suits the plot, and I don’t think it would be a deterrent for anyone wishing to read the book.
Overall, the book is only inspired rather than based on Chinese history (the author makes it a point to mention this), but stories like these remind me just how much women’s history has been deliberately forgotten. Why was the real Wu Zetian China’s only ruler? What else don’t we know through patriarchy hiding women in life and death? The misogyny Zetian faces makes me angry, but the story as a whole is empowering, and I highly recommend it.