Category: Young Adult

Asian YA Fantasy and Romance Mini Reviews

This month my book club is reading books by Asian or Asian American authors. I predominantly picked up YA romances and fantasy that fit this theme, and I’ve gathered a few picks together here, with a focus on East Asian stories.

A Pho Love Story

Cover image for A Pho Love Story by Loan Le

by Loan Le

ISBN 9781534441958

“In different circumstances, this could happen. This is possible in an alternate reality.”

Linh Mai and Bao Nguyen’s families are sworn rivals. For the last six years, their families have operated competing pho restaurants across the street from one another in La Qinta, California’s Little Saigon neighbourhood. But despite the deep enmity, Linh and Bao are curious about one another, and it doesn’t take much to push them together. When open-hearted Bao does a favour for Linh and her family without their parents’ knowledge, it becomes the beginning of a secret friendship, and maybe something more. Soon Bao and Linh are working together on the school newspaper, with Bao writing restaurant reviews that Linh illustrates. Bao has always felt directionless, but through this project he begins to find himself as a writer, while Linh struggles with the knowledge that her parents will never support her choosing a career as an artist, despite her obvious talent. A Pho Love Story is told in alternating chapters, switching between Linh and Bao’s perspectives. Unfortunately I didn’t find that the two had distinct voices, and it was easy to forget whose chapter I was reading. However, I was invested in the family mystery, and learning more about the complicated history that tied Linh and Bao’s families together long before the competing restaurants, sparking a bitter rivalry. Loan Le also excels at food descriptions, and this book made me positively hungry.

Tags: Fiction, Young Adult, Romance

XOXO

Cover image for XOXO by Axie Oh

by Axie Oh

ISBN 9780063025011

“You agreed to share your whole life with your fans, so that they can love you without fear that you’ll disappoint or hurt them.”

Jenny has her future clearly planned out: graduate high school at the top of her class and be admitted into one of America’s best music conservatories before pursuing a career as a cellist. Boys and dating don’t figure into this plan, until Jenny meets Jaewoo at her part-time job at her uncle’s karaoke bar. Jenny spends one whirlwind evening with Jaewoo before he disappears back to Korea and she expects she’ll never see him again. But then Jenny’s grandmother needs surgery, and Jenny and her mother will be traveling to Seoul to help her halmoni through the recovery. Jenny enrolls at a prestigious arts academy, only to discover that among her classmates are the members of the K-pop boy band XOXO—and Bae Jaewoo is the most popular member. Jenny should be focused on her future, and as an idol, Jaewoo is absolutely forbidden to date. In fact, XOXO barely survived a recent scandal when one of Jaewoo’s bandmates was photographed with a girl. Both Jenny and Jaewoo are confined by expectations in their own way, trying to figure out how a music career fits into their future. XOXO was a cute, fast paced romance. However, the effort to keep the pacing brisk did mean that many scenes ended abruptly, with some rough transitions. Events that perhaps should have taken place on page are also passed over with a sentence or two, and the overall effect was somewhat jarring.

Tags: Fiction, Young Adult, Romance

The Girl Who Fell Beneath the Sea

Cover image for The Girl Who Fell Beneath the Sea by Axie Oh

by Axie Oh

ISBN 9781250780874

“You claim the gods should love and care for humans. I disagree. I don’t think love can be bought or earned or even prayed for. It must be freely given.”

When Mina sacrifices herself to save her brother and the girl he loves, she finds herself in a palace beneath the sea, home of the Sea God. Every year, Mina’s kingdom has sacrificed a bride to the Sea God, searching for respite from the storms that have plagued the coast for the past hundred years, but every year the storms return. Perhaps Mina can finally be the true bride who breaks the Sea God’s curse, and saves her kingdom. But caught in the realm between life and death, Mina instead finds herself a ward of Shin, the Sea God’s right hand man and most trusted protector. Still determined to find a way to help her people before her limited time in the spirit realm runs out, Mina must contend an implacable man who blocks her at every turn. The Girl Who Fell Beneath the Sea is based on a Korean folk tale, however that story is about Shim Cheong, the dutiful daughter. Oh’s retelling is told in the first person by Mina, who makes the rebellious choice to save Cheong, who she regards as a sister, and give her a future with Joon, Mina’s older brother. Mina becomes the heart of this new story, rising to the unexpected challenge she faces, and using her voice a storyteller, which also allows Oh to weave in other Korean myths.

Tags: Fiction, Fantasy, Young Adult, Fairy Tale, Romance

An Arrow to the Moon

Cover image for An Arrow to the Moon by Emily X.R. Pan

by Emily X.R. Pan

ISBN 9780316464055

“Her parents’ expectations had become a paperweight, and she was meant to hold still, nearly flattened.”

Emily X.R. Pan’s second novel is Romeo and Juliet meets the Chinese legend of the moon goddess Chang’e and the hunter Houyi. Pan blends the two tales together, along with nods to the 1996 Baz Luhrmann film. Luna Chang and Hunter Yee have grown up in Fairbridge, where their fathers are academic rivals at the local university. However, the enmity between the two families seems to run deeper than mere professional rivalry can explain. Both the Changs and the Yees come from Taiwan, but have differing stances on Taiwanese independence. An Arrow to the Moon is set in 1991, seventeen years after the Terracotta Warriors were unearthed in Shaanxi, an event with magical significance for Luna and Hunter, who were born on the day the tomb was opened. When Hunter and Luna accidentally meet at a party, the world shifts beneath their feet—literally. Things begin changing in Fairbridge, first manifesting as mysterious cracks in the ground. Hunter’s tense relationship with his parents grow more fraught, while Luna learns that her mother has committed an unforgivable betrayal. As their relationship grows, it threatens to unearth family secrets, call in old debts, and unleash a magic that was never of this world.

Tags: Fiction, Fantasy, Young Adult, Fairy Tale

The Empress of Salt and Fortune

Cover image for The Empress of Salt and Fortune by Nghi Vo

by Nghi Vo

ISBN 9781250750303

“History will say that she was an ugly woman, but that is not true. She had a foreigner’s beauty, like a language we do not know how to read.”

This last title isn’t YA but I read it as the same time as the others and it fits thematically! The Empress of Salt and Fortune is the first in a series that will follow the cleric Chih, a disciple of the Singing Hills abbey. Chih is an archivist and keeper of stories, and they are trained to find and record the most interesting tales—perhaps especially those tales that some people would rather were never told. Following the death of the formidable Empress In-yo, Chih is drawn to Old Woman Rabbit, and soon finds that they are in the company of the Empress’s long-time handmaiden, companion, and confidante. The relationship between the foreign bride who seized a kingdom and the servant girl who chose to follow her into exile is one of choices, about what they are and are not willing to sacrifice for one another, and for ambition. In this short but perfectly honed novella, Chih quietly peels back the layers of Rabbit’s life, until they uncover a secret that could bring down a dynasty.

Tags: Fiction, Novella, Fantasy, LGBTQIA+

You might also like:

The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang

Iron Widow by Xiran Jay Zhao

Daughter of the Moon Goddess by Sue Lynn Tan

Where the Drowned Girls Go (Wayward Children #7)

Cover image for Where the Drowned Girls Go (Wayward Children #7) by Seanan McGuire

by Seanan McGuire

ISBN 9781250213624

“She did not look back and she did not cry. For the first time in her life, she was leaving a place she loved because she had chosen to do so, and there was power in that.”

Many children who come back through their doorways seek to find them again. They struggle to fit into a mundane world that does not believe the doors are real at all, that any memories they might have of other worlds are simply fantasies built to repress unspeakable trauma. These misfit children find a home at Eleanor West’s School for Wayward Children, among those who also hope to find their way home once more. But there are other children who really do want nothing more than to forget what they saw on the other side of their doors, to reintegrate into their home world and forget their travels ever happened. These children belong to the Whitethorn Institute, where the headmaster promises his wards that he can help them forget, so that they can become useful members of society once more.

The seventh book in Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children series opens on Cora Miller, who is back at Eleanor West’s school after her adventures with Kade and company in Come Tumbling Down. The Drowned Gods continue whispering to her, threatening to pull her back to the Moors. And worse, Cora is that afraid that even if her own door ever comes back for her, she would pollute the beautiful world of the Trenches by letting the Drowned Gods follow her there. After months of nightmares, Cora decides that she needs to try something different. In desperation, she requests a transfer to the Whitethorn Institute, which Eleanor reluctantly grants. When Cora departs like a thief in the night, she never expects to see any of her traveling companions again.

At the Whitethorn Institute, Cora hopes to find a way to weaken the Drowned Gods hold on her. And while she does find that, the methods are extreme, and she also discovers a sinister institution that is crushing the spirits of its inmates. Here we encounter Regan Lewis, the protagonist of Across the Grass Green Fields, who is now an inmate of Whitethorn. On the verge of graduation, Regan breaks down, causing Cora to question the Whitethorn method, and what is really happening at the Institute. But to unravel the mystery she will need allies, something extremely hard to come by in an authoritarian school that enlists students to police one another. Fortunately for Cora, one of her former classmates has followed her to Whitethorn, determined to extract Cora from its clutches and bring her home. Their investigation hints at a possible larger conflict between the schools that may have profound implications for the rest of the Wayward Children series.

New to the Wayward Children series? Start here with Every Heart a Doorway.

The Magic Fish

Cover image for The Magic Fish by Trung Le Nguyen

by Trung Le Nguyen

ISBN 9780593125298

“The space between two shores is the ocean and being caught in between feels like drowning. And, really, what is the point of tears among so much salt water?”

Thirteen-year-old Tien doesn’t know how to come out to his mom and dad. It’s more than just the fear of rejection; he literally does not know the Vietnamese words to explain what he’s feeling to his immigrant parents. But if there’s one way Tien has always been able to connect with him mom, it’s through fiction, and the many books they borrow from the library, particularly fairy tales. Through the power of stories, Tien and his mother find a way to bridge the language gap, and communicate the things that have been allowed to go unspoken for too long.

The Magic Fish is set in 1998, when Tien is thirteen. He is out to his best friend Claire, but not to their other best friend, Julian, in part because Tien is harbouring feelings for him. He has contemplated coming out to his parents, but he doesn’t know the word for “gay” in Vietnamese, rendering his truth inexpressible. Nor is the American cultural milieu particularly welcoming. News of the murder of Matthew Shepherd plays in the background of one scene, and when Tien and Julian dance together at a school dance, Tien is called in for counseling with the school priest, who advises him against coming out to his parents. “All the parents I’ve counseled described the heartbreak of their children coming out the same way. It feels like a death in the family,” the priest warns, even as Tien’s mother has returned to Vietnam to attend an actual funeral.

"I'm always a little lost these days. There was a time when I knew exactly where I was supposed to go."

Blended with Tien’s coming-of-age story are three fairy tales that weave through The Magic Fish. The first one is read aloud by Tien to his mother as she works on her sewing in the evenings. The second is told to Tien’s mother by her aunt back in Vietnam when she returns home for the first time in many years. The final fairy tale is one she reads to her son, modifying the narrative to convey things that have gone unspoken between them for too long. Each tale has its own unique visual aesthetic, reflecting the imaginations of Tien and his mother. They are stories that are familiar in various versions across cultures, but known in English as Cinderella and The Little Mermaid. Trung Le Nguyen uses three types of colour panels to emphasize the different aspects of this interwoven tale. Blue for the fairy tales Tien and his mother read together, red for their real life, and yellow for his mother’s past in Vietnam. Nguyen does amazing work within the confines of these limited colour palettes, employing shading and texture to great effect, alongside his beautiful line work.

Communication is a theme throughout The Magic Fish, specifically in the struggles Tien faces to communicate with his parents, who do not speak much English. In Vietnamese, Tien lacks the specific vocabulary he needs to come out to his parents, making this already challenging difference feel like an even more unbridgeable gap. However, we also see this theme in Tien’s hesitation to come out to Julian, with whom he does share a language, but whose rejection he fears. Meanwhile, Tien’s mother Hien is also struggling to keep in contact with her family back in Vietnam, to remain connected to them across time and distance. The story she chooses to tell Tien is that of The Little Mermaid, who gives up her voice when she goes to her new home above the sea, just as Hien lost much of her ability to communicate when she moved to a new country where she did not know the language. In the United States, she turns to stories both to improve her English vocabulary and pronunciation, and to find common ground with American-born son. In this way she is finally able to convey her unconditional love and acceptance. The Magic Fish combines striking art with a moving family story for an unforgettable read.

Cheer Up: Love and Pompoms

Cover image for Cheer Up: Love and Pompoms by Crystal Frasier with art by Val Wise

by Crystal Frasier

Art by Val Wise

Lettered by Oscar O. Jupiter

ISBN 9781620109557

“The team is great. They’re the only people who really stuck their necks out for me last year when I came out. But sometimes they’re so eager to prove how much they support me that they don’t listen to what I want.”

When the guidance counselor tells Annie and her mom that she needs some additional extracurricular activities to round out her college applications, Annie is less than thrilled when her mom pushes for cheerleading. Grumpy and unsociable, Annie feels like the exact opposite of a peppy cheerleader. Worse, her past behaviour has alienated more than one member of the team. But her former friend Bebe pushes for the squad to give Annie a chance, the same way they gave Bebe a chance when she came out and transitioned last year. With Bebe and her friends, Annie learns how to be part of a team, and file down some of her sharper edges and defensive impulses. As the two girls repair their friendship, they discover that they may have other feelings for one another as well.

Much of the story in Cheer Up has to do with the different ways in which the people in Bebe’s life support her in the way she needs, or fail to. Bebe’s parents are tentatively supportive of her transition, but they don’t understand that transitioning is literally saving her life. “They think of me transitioning as a luxury. And they’re worried it’ll distract me from getting good grades and getting into college,” Bebe explains to Annie as the two are reconnecting. Meanwhile, the cheer team is almost too supportive in certain ways, sometimes failing to listen to Bebe’s preferences, like the fact that she doesn’t want to run for homecoming queen. Annie has to find her own position in Bebe’s life, and strike the right balance when her combative nature clashes with Bebe’s tendency to go with the flow and pick her battles carefully. Annie has never stepped down from a fight in her life, and their two personalities make a great contrast.

I initially missed the memo about this being a love story, despite the subtitle, and thought that this story would be about repairing Annie and Bebe’s past friendship. Bebe and Annie used to be friends, and we’re never told why they no longer are at the start of the story. It seems that their falling out happened a couple years ago, whereas Bebe’s transition happened the previous year, so the two events do not appear to be directly related. The story does not delve into what led to the rift, or addresses how it might impact their romantic relationship moving forward. However, I loved the way Cheer Up addressed Bebe’s uncertainty about her sexuality—something that had been on the backburner in the midst of her transition—and her worries about how being openly trans might play into the way potential romantic partners perceive her.

The sweet and hopeful nature of the story is complemented by bright, full-colour illustrations by artist Val Wise that really made this graphic novel a joy to read. If you’re looking for a fun, heartfelt read that handles serious issues with a light hand, check out Cheer Up.

Himawari House

Cover image for Himawari House by Harmony Becker

by Harmony Becker

ISBN 9781250235565

“The storefronts and signs, once faceless strangers, now greet me like new friends. Every new word I learn lifts the fog around me a little more, revealing the colors and shapes of the world around me.”

Nao’s family left Japan for California when she was young, but in many ways her heart remained behind. Recently graduated from high school, she decides to spend a gap year in Japan, trying to regain the mother tongue that has largely slipped away from her growing up in America, and feeling the pressure to assimilate. She moves into Himawari House, where she meets Tina and Hyejung, who have come to study in Japan, and Masaki and Shinichi, two Japanese brothers who also live there. For Nao, Japan was once home, but now she feels just as cast adrift there as Tina and Hyejung, an adult with the language skills of a young child. Together they navigate life in a foreign country, taking their first steps into adulthood cast free of the expectations they left behind at home.

Harmony Becker is the artist of the Eisner Award-winning graphic memoir They Called Us Enemy, by actor George Takei. Himawari House is her solo graphic novel debut. Nao’s cultural background reflects Becker’s, and she also studied abroad in Korea, adding a depth of realism to her fictional take on these experiences. The story takes place over the course of a year, and is a series of slice-of-life chapters capturing different seasons and experiences. The sensibility mixes Japanese manga style with the Western graphic novel tradition. Becker employs grey scale art that adapts to the seriousness of the scene, becoming more cartoonish or exaggerated in funny moments, or when the characters are overwhelmed by their emotions and resort to humour. The visual depiction of spoken language is also masterfully handled, conveying both the struggles of codeswitching and the increasing mastery the characters experience through immersion.

Although the through-line of the graphic novel is in English, Himawari House is a story as multilingual the characters who inhabit it, incorporating Japanese and Korean. Many scenes are rendered in multiple languages. Even English is not just one singular language but a multitude, articulated in the different accents and dialects of the various characters. Hyejung’s English, learned in Korean, is different from the American English Nao speaks, but for them it is still a more comfortable common tongue than Japanese. In Masaki, we find a character who is uncomfortable speaking English, but who reads it well at an academic level, demonstrating that there are different types of fluency. Tina, meanwhile, speaks Singlish with her family, something that none of her housemates realize until they overhear her on the phone one day and realize it is different than the way she speaks English with them. Communication is complex and multifaceted, and never to be taken for granted, but love in all its forms can stretch across language barriers.

Though all three girl travelled to Japan to find themselves, perhaps the most important thing they find is one another, and the home they build around their common experience. They laugh and cry together, supporting one another through cram school, crappy customer service jobs, crushes requited and unrequited, and unexpected bouts of homesickness as they come of age in a world completely different from the ones they grew up in. If finding our place in the world is hard, it is made easier by finding the people we belong with.

You might also like Two Trees Make a Forest by Jessica J. Lee

Across the Grass Green Fields (Wayward Children #6)

Cover image for Across the Grass Green Fields by Seanan McGuire.

by Seanan McGuire

ISBN 9781250213594

“Regan had known from the beginning that Laurel’s love was conditional. It came with so many strings that it was easy to get tangled inside it, unable to even consider trying to break free. Laurel’s love was a safe, if rigid, cocoon.”

Regan Lewis only ever wanted to be normal. Unfortunately for her, fate had other plans. Knowing that there is nothing but social ostracism waiting for her back at school after she reveals a secret, she find her doorway to the Hooflands, a realm of unicorns and centaurs perfect for a horse girl like her. But when humans come to the Hooflands, it means something is coming, something that requires a hero. And it is very useful for heroes to have thumbs and fit into small spaces, after all. But the centaur herd that finds Regan looks at her and sees a child, not just a human hero. And so they decide to keep her safe for as long as they can, until her quest presents itself.

Across the Grass Green Fields is part of Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children series in that it involves a child going through a doorway to a fantasy world. However, it stands apart in that Regan neither starts nor ends at Eleanor West’s school, and meets none of the series’ recurring characters along the way. It has been suggested that you could reasonably start here rather than with Every Heart a Doorway, but that would mean missing out on a lot of the interconnected structure and logic of the portal worlds. The series is in many ways cumulative, and even entirely separate stories are in conversation with one another.

One of the striking things about this series is that McGuire writes like an adult who remembers childhood viscerally. Not just the fun and the magic, but the vulnerability and confusion, the casual cruelty and fickle whims. The most compelling part of Across the Grass Green Fields is perhaps what Regan goes through before she finds her door, not the adventure that she discovers beyond it. Regan’s playground friendships are fraught, clearly depicting the “strange feuds, unexpected betrayals, and arbitrary shunnings” that many adults seem to have forgotten. In this it reminded me of the complex friendship depicted between Lundy and Moon in the fourth book in the series, In an Absent Dream.

Regan is a people-pleaser, and the only thing she dares to claim for herself is her love of horses. It is not so strange as to get her ostracized by her peers, an acceptable obsession for girls. In everything else, she bends to the whims of her dictatorial best friend Laurel, and tries not to completely lose herself. When Laurel ostracizes their mutual friend Heather for not being the right kind of girl, Regan choses Laurel without hesitation. It is not until Regan finds her door, and meet the centaur girl Chicory that she discovers a friendship that gives and takes in equal measure, and demands that neither party give up parts of themselves for the sake of the other.

Regan’s quest comes late and fast, and is in some ways anti-climactic to the rest of her adventures. She has experienced much of her personal growth in the Hooflands long before she goes to the palace to meet the Queen. This is simply where she proves that she has learned what the Hooflands had to teach her about friendship, destiny, power, and the importance of being yourself.

You might also like Over the Woodward Wall by A. Deborah Baker

Romance Mini Reviews

Boyfriend Material

Cover image for Boyfriend Material by Alexis Hall

by Alexis Hall

ISBN 9781728206141

Boyfriend Material is a fake dating romance featuring Luc the unmitigated disaster and Oliver the polished barrister. Lucien O’Donnell works for an obscure environmental non-profit but his real problem is his D-list celebrity fame as the son of two estranged rock stars. When the paparazzi snaps a compromising photo, Luc is forced to do damage control with the charity’s stodgy donors; he needs to find a respectable date for the annual fundraiser. Enter Oliver Blackwood, a criminal defense lawyer who also needs a date for a big event—his parents’ upcoming ruby wedding anniversary garden party. The secret sauce of this romance is that under his polished exterior Oliver is, in his own way, just as much of a disaster as Luc, with a string of failed romances behind him and a tense relationship with his family. But their chaos is complimentary, which is perhaps why their mutual friend Bridget has been trying to set them up for years (though Luc insists it is because they are her only two gay friends). I liked this romance so much I read it not once but twice in the last year and enjoyed it just as much the second time through. When I was working on this mini review I was pleasantly surprised to discover that there is a sequel, Husband Material, due to be published in the summer of 2022!

Tags: Fiction, Romance, LGBTQ+

The Heart Principle

Cover image for The Heart Principle by Helen Hoang

by Helen Hoang

ISBN 9780451490841

Anna Sun’s life seems to be in free-fall. After burning out in her musical career as violinist following an unexpected bout of YouTube fame, she feels adrift. Then her boyfriend tells her that he wants an open relationship before they decide if they should marry. Steeling her nerve, Anna decides that if her boyfriend is going to sleep around, she can too. And this time she won’t pick a man just because her family approves. The Heart Principle is the third in Helen Hoang’s series of romances featuring people with autism as heroines or love interests; the first was 2018’s The Kiss Quotient. The series is tied together, and love interest Quan Diep is the business partner of Michael Phan, the love interest from the first book. With his motorcycle and tattoos, Quan is nothing Anna’s parents would ever approve of, but when a crisis strikes in Anna’s family, Quan is there for her in ways that are more than she ever could have expected from a fling. In fact, it feels a lot like love. Unlike the other installments in the series, The Heart Principle is written in the first person, lending a heart-wrenching immediacy to Anna’s struggle with her burnout, paralyzing repetitive behaviours, and controlling family. Despite this darker element when I was generally turning to romance for heart-warming fluff, I absolutely ripped through this book, and it may be my favourite novel in the series.

Tags: Fiction, Romance

Somewhere Only We Know

Cover image for Somewhere Only We Know by Maurene Goo

by Maurene Goo

ISBN 9780374310578

Roman Holiday but make it K-pop. Lucky is a K-pop star at the height of her fame. She has captivated Asia, and her management team has turned their sights on a North American breakthrough for their Korean-American idol. But Lucky is burnt out, struggling to remember why she wanted this life so badly in the first place. Isolated in a Hong Kong hotel, what she really wants is the ability to go out for a hamburger without being mobbed by adoring fans who have no idea what her life is really like. Meanwhile, Jack is under pressure from his family to head to college when what he really wants is an art career. He’s been secretly moonlighting as a tabloid photographer for months, a surprisingly lucrative gig for a teenager. When he rescues an apparently drunk girl on the heels of an assignment at a swanky Hong Kong hotel, he has no idea at first that she is international superstar Lucky. Somewhere Only We Know has a strong sense of place as Lucky and Jack take a speed run through the sights of Hong Kong, eating everything they can get their hands on along the way. However, I struggled to sympathize with Jack or see his appeal as a love interest given what we know about his intentions once he realizes who Lucky really is.

Tags: Fiction, Romance, Young Adult

Iron Widow

Cover image for Iron Widow by Xiran Jay Zhao

by Xiran Jay Zhao

ISBN 9780735269941

“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.

You might also like The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang