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“Despite their best efforts, I find myself worthy of happiness,” Zetian. —Iron Widow
by Xiran Jay Zhao
Strong Female, Teaches About Culture
The boys of Huaxia dream of pairing up with girls to pilot Chrysalises, giant transforming robots that can battle the mecha aliens that lurk beyond the Great Wall. It doesn’t matter that the girls often die from the mental strain.
When 18-year-old Zetian offers herself up as a concubine-pilot, it’s to assassinate the ace male pilot responsible for her sister’s death. But she gets her vengeance in a way nobody expects—she kills him through the psychic link between pilots and emerges from the cockpit unscathed. She is labeled an Iron Widow, a much-feared and much-silenced kind of female pilot who can sacrifice boys to power up Chrysalises instead.
To tame her unnerving, yet invaluable mental strength, she is paired up with Li Shimin, the strongest and most controversial male pilot in Huaxia. But now that Zetian has had a taste of power, she will not cower so easily. She will miss no opportunity to leverage their combined might and infamy to survive attempt after attempt on her life, until she can figure out exactly why the pilot system works in its misogynistic way—and stop more girls from being sacrificed.
Iron Widow is not only about Zetian avenging her sister’s death, but about showing girls that they can—and should—grow up to be more than just a sacrifice for the advancement of men, and to aspire to be something more than the perfect subservient. Zetian faces very complex problems, in which she is constantly forced to choose between what is safe for her as a woman and what is fair to her as a human. Zetian is a powerhouse, who is a bit hotheaded, but she is extremely justice oriented. She balances power, strength, and the desire for companionship throughout the duration of the story. Though she is extreme in her actions, she is relatable in her thoughts; she is a strong-willed, independent girl that will stop at nothing to release herself and other women in her world from the shackles of the system that holds them back. She handles things violently and with no regard for consequences, but in her world, it’s her only option. Iron Widow is written from the perspective of such an intense, passionate character that it’s impossible not to root for her from start to finish.
Xiran Jay Zhao successfully writes a strong female lead who doesn’t yield to anyone or anything. Unlike most protagonists, Zetian is not worried about fighting fair, she’s focused on fighting to win. She campaigns ruthlessly for her own freedom, though she is often faced with painful and terrifying consequences for both her and her family. Zetian is merciless to those who have shown her no mercy, whereas traditional female roles may have been forgiving. She is ruthless in her pursuit of liberation for the women of her world and does not draw moral “lines” that she will not cross, which allows her to fight the system that has held her down simply because she was born a girl. Plus, she is not worried about who is caught in the crossfire. Zetian is violent in a way that only traditional male characters have been allowed to be, which may be shocking to some readers.
Iron Widow is a violent science fiction book. It is set during a tumultuous time and features people who are very rough around the edges, so both the fight scenes and the inner dialogue of the protagonist are often brutal and unforgiving. However, because the nature of the fighting style, the scenes are not overly gory or upsetting. Most of the combat takes place using spirit power known as “Qi,” so when an enemy is killed it is often described as a kind of disappearing process which eliminates bloody and grotesque scenes. There are several depictions of murder, torture, and abuse woven in that may upset sensitive readers.
The main theme of Iron Widow is anger against the oppression of women. This creates an emotionally charged story. Zetian is angry from start to finish, and the subject of her hate changes every few chapters. Her anger is justified and makes Iron Widow refreshing to read. Iron Widow will appeal to readers who enjoy futuristic fantasy novels with epic battles and anti-heroes.
- Female soldiers are used as “concubines” for the pilots. This is alluded to a few times but not described in detail. Before being matched with a male pilot, the female concubines are given an introductory speech. They are told, “From this day onward, you will exist to please him. . . most importantly, you will not react negatively to his touch.”
- In order to avoid joining the military, Yitzi, Zetian’s best friend, offers to marry Zetian refuses his offer saying, “Stop pretending like your family would let me be anything but a concubine. . . And that will never work. There’ll be problems when I refuse to kowtow to your disgusting pig of a father. . . when I refuse to bear your son – because I am never letting anyone’s spawn swell up my body and bind me forever, not even yours.”
- After Zetian enlists in the military, her dad says, “You better be able to pass the maidenhood test. . .” Zetian responds by saying, “For the last time, nothing’s ever been up inside me . . . Stop being so obsessed!” The process of the test is not explained, but it is implied that passing it is a requirement for girls to be accepted into the military.
- After the “maidenhood test,” Zetian is in a room with other girls. “No one speaks. We haven’t spoken since the maidenhood tests hours earlier by the aunties. One girl didn’t pass… . They took her away. To where, I don’t know. Hopefully not back to her home. Her family would probably drown her in a pig cage.”
- Zetian and Yitzi are talking in the woods near her house. Zetian is about to enlist in the army and Yitzi’s trying to convince her to stay instead. Then she kisses him. “I grasp his face and close the gap between us. His plea hushes away between our lips. Warmth like I’ve never felt blooms through me. Heat seeps into my blood, and I swear I could’ve turned luminous. Yitzi’s lips are tense with surprise at first, then meld to the shape of mine. His hand lifts up, trembling, grazing my neck like he’s afraid to touch me, like he’s afraid this isn’t real.”
- Zetian and her first pilot have just met and are in their shared bedroom for the first time. “The heat of his breath on the shell of my ear triggers something visceral in my body. My muscles tighten as if pulled by a string. My breaths shallow and quicken. My blood rushes to startling places, and I have to clench down my surprise.”
- Zetian and her second pilot, Yang Guang, kiss. “I caress his lips, though what I really want to touch is his crown . . . He takes my hand and kisses the pads of my fingers. . . I draw Yang Guang down into the second kiss of my life. It’s less gentle, less timid. Less chaste. When the hot blade of his tongue parts my lips, I can’t help the gasp that rushes out of me. His mouth moves more aggressively than before, scattering my mind. His armored hand runs down my back. . . He kisses a trail down my neck. I reflexively arch my back. . . I bite back a whimper.”
- Zetian plans to avenge her sister’s death. When it comes to her killer, Zetian says, “I’m going to be his beautiful, sultry concubine. And then. . . I’m going to rip his throat open in his sleep.” Yitzi replies, “There has to be a different way to kill Yang Guang. My family has connections in—” Yitzi implys that his family could hire someone to kill Yang Guang or his family.
- Zetian theatens Yitzi. Zetian says, “If you tip off the army in even the slightest way, I will kill myself when they lock me up, and then I will haunt you.”
- When Zetian is paired with a pilot, she thinks, “Before I do any throat slitting, I am going to have to be his plaything.”
- Zetian kills a child in her copilot’s spirit realm. The child represents a younger version of her pilot and once she kills the child, it allows her to exit the pilot’s spirit realm that she is trapped in. “With a howl, I seize the boy’s neck and slam him down over the vines. ‘This is your mind.’ I crush his throat. ‘You’re the one who trapped yourself!’ He gags and shrieks, but I don’t let go. Even when everything screams for me to have mercy and that I can’t kill a child, I tighten my grip… As the light leaves his eyes, the realm destabilizes… I scream as I’m flayed apart as well, bones shattering, muscles snapping, skin peeling. My spirit, set free, rushes up and away.”
- Zetian kills the male pilot who killed her sister. Zetian “slam[s] him down by his throat, just like I did his child self. I plunge my dagger into his neck, the way I dreamed so long and so often of doing. His screams gurgle, though there’s no blood. Laughing uncontrollably, I keep stabbing. And stabbing. And stabbing.”
- Li Shimin, the second pilot Zetian is paired with, tells Zetian he murdered his brothers for raping a girl. Then his father came home. Li Shimin says. “One day, I found out some of my Big Brother’s friends were blackmailing her, so I beat them up. Soon after, I came home and heard some weird noises in the room I shared with my brothers. Went in and saw them. With her. And . . . I guess he didn’t realize I had it in me to come for his life. . . [My father] came home before I could get out. Saw what I did. Grabbed a cleaver, too, and came for me. . . I had to defend myself.”
- When male copilots speak ill of Zetian, Li Shimin fights brutally to defend Zetian’s honor. “Li Shimin grabs his leg, yanks him off balance while completing the turn, then stomps on the highest part of his thigh. There’s an audible crack as his leg juts up to an unnatural angle. Everyone gasps in giddy shock, pierced through by his guttural scream.” The fight scene spans over two pages.
- A female concubine threatens Zetian Then, the concubine hits Zetian hard enough to knock her to the floor and tells Zetian, “Stay away from my partner you man-killing whore.”
- Zetian is inside Li Shimin’s mind and see his violent battle memories. “The muffled cries of a young girl, coming from behind a door I approach with equal parts fear and rage. The shrieks of my own brothers as I smash a cleaver through their bodies over and over. The yowls of fellow boys in bright orange jumpsuits as I bash their faces with scabbed fists. The frustrated shouts from my own mouth as electricity shocks through my body while I lay bricks with bloody, trembling fingers. The desperate, slow-building wail of girls in the grip of soldiers as I’m escorted toward them across a docking bridge.”
- Zetian and Li Shimin torture an army general for information. They waterboard him using alcohol and a towel. “Shimin shoves the tilt table so that An Lushan’s head swings near the ground. I press the towel over his squirming face… Shimin upturns the bottle. Liquor pours out in a rhythmic glug glug glug over Lushan’s smothered nose and mouth. A wet, animalistic shrieking gurgles against the towel. . . Shimin grips the bottle tighter. . . Shimin fetches a fresh bottle of liquor. . . An Lushan opens his mouth to spew something else, but I silence him with the towel, like he tried so hard to silence me. Shimin unleashes a nonstop deluge of the liquor once used to break his mind. An Lushan’s last words drown in wet, choking misery.” An Lushan dies. The scene spans over seven pages.
- After Yitzi’s father, Gao Qiu, tries to blackmail Zetian, Yitzi uses his power to harness lightning. “Radiance beams under Yitzi’s fluttering robes. A war cry scours out from the bottom of his lungs. Electric-hot Wood qi, boosted by Earth qi, bursts from his fingers, held like a gun. It streaks across the ether and into Gao Qiu. A smell of roasting flesh blows over on the wind. It’s over in less than three seconds, but shocks enough for a lifetime. The shrieking little girls scramble away from the charred, smoking shape that used to be Gao Qiu. His goons freak out as well, kicking it out of the hovercraft. It plunges into the city, splattering over a random rooftop, triggering another tide of screams.”
- Profanity is used several times. Profanity includes shit, fuck, whore, slut, ass, and asshole.
- Zetian says, “There is no such thing as karma. . . or, if it does exist, it sure doesn’t give a shit about people like me.”
- Zetian is mid-battle and is struggling to remember her past, her surroundings, and what is currently happening. She thinks, “What the fuck is a Chrysalis?“
- Zetian is confused about her surroundings and lashes out at her copilot, Li Shimin, because she thinks he’s attacking her. She thinks, “I am also absolutely fucking bonkers.”
- Quielo, another female concubine, is talking to Zetian about injustice against women. Quielo says, “The entitled assholes of the world are sustained by girls who forgive too easily. And there’s nothing I’d like to rid the world of more than entitled assholes.”
- Li Shimin, Zetian’s copilot, talks about his feelings for a man. He says, “The last thing I needed was another reason for the world to hate me. Though, now . . . Now, I see—it’s all fucking bullshit.”
Drugs and Alcohol
- Li Shimin drinks heavily after a battle. He is given large amounts of alcohol to keep him dependent on it so that the army can control him. At one point, Li Shimin “unscrews the flask and swigs it like it’s the first freshwater he’s found after months of drought.”
- The main character is an alcoholic who goes through withdrawal.
- The entirety of the book is based on spirit realms and use of superhuman powers and abilities. Characters harness spirit/soul power in the form of ‘qi’ to fight battles against alien creatures known as Hunduns, they are faceless and the size of a building and come in many different animalistic forms.
- A fight is taking place with Hunduns advancing towards human civilization. “The Hunduns were coming. A whole herd of them, rumbling across the wilds, stirring up a dark storm of dust through the night. Their rotund, faceless bodies, made of spirit metal, glinted under the silver half-moon and sky full of glittering stars.”
- A pilot by the name of Yang Guang is preparing to meet the Hunduns in battle and defend his home and people. “Through hair-thin acupuncture needles along his pilot seat that bit into his spine, Yang Guang channeled his qi, his life force, to power the Fox. Qi was the vital essence that sustained everything in the world, from the sprouting of leaves to the blazing of flames to the turning of the planet.”
by Peyton Watson