by Xiran Jay Zhao
“Maybe, if things were different, I could get used to this. Being cradled in his warmth and light. Being cherished. Being loved. But I have no faith in love. Love cannot save me. I choose vengeance.”
When Wu Ruyi volunteered for Huaxia’s military as a Chrysalis concubine-pilot, her near-certain death in battle against the alien Hunduns was supposed to buy a better life for her family back on the frontier. When a male pilot kills Ruyi before she ever sees battle, the family receives no money for a death in service, and suddenly the second daughter, Wu Zetian, is facing pressure to either enlist or marry to help her family’s position. But her jiejie’s death only fans the flame of Zetian’s rage against the system that sacrifices scores of girls, while the boys who are their counterparts in piloting the mechas are national heroes. Zetian hatches a plan to enlist in order to get close to Yang Guang, the pilot of the famous Nine-Tailed Fox, and take her revenge for the death of her sister. But Zetian’s plan goes awry when she is dragged into battle by Yang Guang before she ever gets the opportunity to kill him. Against all odds, Zetian emerges from the Nine-Tailed Fox an Iron Widow, the rare girl who is capable of killing the boy in the yang seat rather than dying in the yin seat herself. Instead of killing her, the military assigns Zetian to Li Shimin, a convicted murderer who killed his own family, and was only spared only because his unusually high spirit pressure made him a valuable but volatile military resource, much like Zetian herself.
Iron Widow takes place in Huaxia, a science fiction setting that draws inspiration from ancient China. Huaxia hunkers behind the Great Wall, a defensive perimeter guarded by the Chrysalises in order to keep the alien Hunduns at bay. Many characters draw on famous historical figures in this science fiction context, including Wu Zetian herself, who takes her name from the Tang dynasty figure who was the only woman to ever rule China as emperor. However, the vibes here are much more mecha anime than historical fantasy, and the main body of the story follows Zetian and Shimin as they become the most powerful and most reviled pilot pair in Huaxia.
While being a fast-paced science fiction adventure, Iron Widow also reflects significantly on patriarchy and on how women can be complicit in the systems that oppress them. Zetian clashes with her fellow pilots from the moment she enters training. She encounters jealousy from the other new recruits because she has a high spirit pressure reading, and she is immediately assigned the rank of “consort” rather than “concubine.” Zetian also receives a less than warm welcome from some of the Iron Princesses, the elite women pilots who are part of a rare “balanced match” that means they are less likely to die in battle. Zetian has been subjected to foot binding, and her feet were broken and bound by her own grandmother to improve her marriageability. Every step she takes is painful, and the presence or absence of this pain becomes the way that she recognizes whether she is in reality, or the dreamlike mind-realm of piloting a Chrysalis.
Although piloting a Chrysalis involves a gender-based system derived from principles in Chinese medicine, Xiran Jay Zhao signals early on that they are not here to reinforce the gender binary. Rather, the entirety of Iron Widow is about questioning these divisions. Early in the novel, Zetian is in the woods with her friend Gao Yizhi—a rich city boy with whom she has formed a secret and unlikely bond—they see a butterfly with an unusual colour pattern. Yizhi has been teaching Zetian to look up information on his tablet—a device that is only permitted to men—and through this research she discovers that “biological sex has all sorts of variations in nature.” This lays the groundwork for Zetian to question the entire piloting system. Nor is this the only way in which Iron Widow is unusual; after setting up both Yizhi and Shimin as potential love interests, rather than rivalry the novel sees the three taking tentative steps into a polyamorous triad which notably does not just focus on Zetian but also develops the relationship between Yizhi and Shimin.
Over the course of the narrative, Zetian begins to move past the idea of personal revenge and turns her eyes towards the system that enabled her sister’s death. As she discovers the power to pilot she begins to feel responsible not just for avenging her jiejie, but for the lives of all the girls that will die if nothing changes. But she still doesn’t have the full picture of the world they are operating in, as is made clear by two important revelations that result from the battle to retake Zhou province from the Hunduns at the climax of the book. This new information sets the stage for Zetian, Yizhi, and Shimin to rock the very foundations of Huaxia in the untitled sequel expected to be published in 2022.
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