"Iron Widow" review & plot summary
Title: Iron Widow
Author: Xiran Jay Zhao
Subgenre: Science fiction
2021 Bingo squares: Set in Asia, First Person, Book club, Revenge, 2021, Chapter titles, Debut
Recommend: Maybe, if you want an angry, non-subtle feminist book with giant mecha robots.
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.
Iron Widow is not a subtle story. Wu Zetian seeks revenge for her sister’s death at the hands of war hero Yang Guang, a Chrysalis pilot who regularly kills female concubine copilots during battle. Only her sister wasn’t killed during battle; instead, he killed her for some unknown reason outside of combat, and her family wasn’t given any monetary compensation as a result. Her family isn’t upset about the death, they’re just upset about the lack of money. Wu Zetian’s upset about the treatment of women in society.
For eighteen years, my unibrow has saved me from being sold into a painful, terrifying death.
Today is the day I’m releasing it from its gracious service.
Zeitan’s plan? Enlist in the army herself, as another concubine-copilot for Guang, and then kill him in his sleep. But things don’t go exactly according to plan, and Zeitan finds herself pulled between factions in the military that want to use her or kill her. She’s had enough of men - and women who want her to defer to men - making decisions about her life.
There’s some mecha robot battles, some military politics, and a lot of feminism - all very heavy-handed “here is a world in which women have zero rights and so standing up for anything at all is radically progressive.” There’s nothing subtle anywhere about it. You might find the heavy-handed-ness simplistic, but sometimes it’s nice to be angry about foot binding in a fictional fantasy world rather than that time you posted a tweet and a guy replied to you correcting you and you were like “hey actually that’s not what I meant” and he was like “oh, you’re right, I guess I misread your original post” and you reread your original post and you’re like “this seems pretty goddamn hard to misread” and you CAN’T HELP but wonder “okay did he just EXPECT me to be wrong about this thing because I’m female because I literally can’t see any other way anyone could possibly have made this mistake” but you don’t want to say anything because it’s really not worth it, but idk maybe you just weren’t that clear in your wording???? And then you start to worry about your clarity when you’re writing, but at the same time you’re really PRETTY SURE it was a perfectly fine tweet but you don’t want to always jump to the conclusion that it’s because you’re a woman and—yeah, sometimes it’s actually escapist to read about a world that’s way worse than your own because it’s just that much easier, you know? I liked it, is what I’m saying.
Anyway, there’s also a polyamorous romance plot (F/M/M) which is given some focus, enough to be relevant to the plot but not so much to make this a romance novel. This is pretty cool and almost never happens in fantasy, especially in as casual a way as it does in Iron Widow.
What keeps Iron Widow from a 5/5 rating? A couple things. Mostly we just don’t learn much about the broader world. There’s little explanation about the Chrysalises, not that much combat, only a very brief history of the war, and almost no description of the government, despite politics being extremely important to the story. Arguably, a lot of this worldbuilding’s absence makes sense - Zeitan’s own experiences as a woman in this world would be limited. However, she’s also a radical feminist in her world; her opinions should come from somewhere. And regardless, as a reader, I want to know more about what’s going on. With the super cool premise taking this much of a backseat, the novel felt just a bit on the generic side.
I was also slightly distracted by some of the name-dropping of historical figures as characters - this seemed pretty unnecessary to me despite the disclaimer at the start of the book that there’s no attempt to be faithful to actual Chinese history (well, yeah, there’s giant mechas). At best, the names aren’t recognized; at worst, someone thinks they’re actually related in history to the real-life empress Wu Zetian. According to the author’s website, Li Shimin and Gao Yizhi are actually inspired by their historical counterparts, but Sima Yi and Zhuge Liang are so far away in history that even if there’s inspiration there, keeping the names seems questionable.
A few content warnings are appropriate. The author provides warnings at the start of the book, so I’ll just quote them:
Please be aware that this book contains scenes of violence and abuse, suicide ideation, discussion and references to sexual assault (though no on-page depictions), alcohol addiction, and torture.
Since this is the first novel in an as-yet-incomplete duology, beneath the cover image I’m providing a summary of events of book 1, so that you can catch up when book 2 is published. It’s not intended as a substitute for reading the book, and I’m not emphasizing important events more than unimportant ones; I just wrote down what happened in order.
For when book 2 comes out and you want a refresher on what happened in book 1:
Zetian leaves home to get revenge on Yang Guang. Right before she leaves, Yizhi confronts her and tries to convince her to stay, offering to pay her parents whatever the army was going to offer her, but she insults him and leaves anyway. Zetian is tested and found to have a high qi. She gets into a fight with another girl over her hairpin, which contains the blade she’s going to use to kill Guang. Guang intrudes on the fight and chooses her. Before they can have sex, a battle starts; Zetian kills Guang.
After she kills Guang, Zetian is taken to meet Chief Strategist Zhuge Liang and Senior Strategist Sima Yi. They tell her she’ll partner with Li Shimin, the murderer who pilots the Vermilion Bird. After surviving her first fight with him, she goes to live with him and discovers he’s an alcoholic. Sima Yi starts trying to train the two of them to work together. After Sima Yi is lured away at breakfast, Shimin is tricked into participating into a fight, and then locked up in solitary confinement, and that night Zetian is attacked by Xing Tian, a pilot trying to get revenge for her killing Guang earlier. Yizhi shows up and saves her.
Yizhi enters their lives claiming to be a fan of Shimin to help him regain his sobriety. Zetian confesses to Shimin that Yizhi is her “city boy” and Shimin gives his blessing for them to be a couple. During withdrawal, Shimin hallucinates about his dead former partner, Wende. An Lushan, another strategist, tries to get Shimin and Zetian to go into battle during withdrawal and before their qi is recovered, but they manage to hide.
Zetian approaches Qieluo, a Balanced Pair female pilot, for advice, but she is cold and refuses to help. Xiuying, another Pair woman, is more welcoming to her, and offers to help should she need it. Zetian resolves to become a media star so that the army can’t discard her and asks Yizhi’s father, Gao Qiu, for help. He says they must survive another fight together.
They are forced into the next fight before they are ready, and Zetian is shot by the army to force them into the chrysalis. They partner successfully for the fight anyway. Zetian wants to destroy the Kaihuang watchtower, but Yizhi stands outside it and offers her his qi, and she takes it instead of destroying the tower, then heads back into battle.
Zetian negotiates a contract on behalf of herself and Shimin with Gao Qiu. He recognizes that she held the authority and makes her record a video of herself reading the contract out loud, naked, to use as a form of leverage over her, but she thinks it won’t hold any power over her because she doesn’t feel shame from it. She and Shimin begin doing photoshoots. One of them is at Zetian’s home, and she has to see her family again. Xiuying suggests that she move her family to safety with Gao Qiu, which she does, but Qieluo advises her that she should make sure her family isn’t a weakness. During this time, Zetian also finds out that the army - specifically An Lushan - deliberately made Shimin an alcoholic.
Gao Qiu hosts a Match Crowning for Zetian and Shimin, and afterwards they have sex, Zetian explaining that Yizhi doesn’t feel that his relationship with her needs to be exclusive. Later, they realize the army must be manipulating the Chrysalises somehow to ensure that boys kill girls rather than the other way around. They kidnap An Lushan, torture him, and make him confess on camera that the girls' seats are rigged to be weaker than the boys' seats. Then they kill him. After they show Yizhi the footage, Yizhi and Shimin kiss.
The Match Crowning ceremony was successful at drumming up final support for the attack to win back the Zhou province. Yizhi rides along to supply extra qi. After they kill one of the emperor-class Hundun, Xiuying, in the Black Tortoise, betrays them, because her children were under threat. Shimin ejects Zetian and Yizhi, and they find the Yellow Dragon. Zetian administers the flowerpox cure to Qin Zheng and makes him sit in the less-powerful yin seat, while she sits in the yang seat to fight the rest of the Hundun.
After the battle, Zetian announces the truth about the Chrysalises to everyone via broadcast and races home, declaring herself Empress. She goes to Chang’an and destroys the Palace of Sages, not caring that her family is inside. Yizhi kills his father. The gods take Shimin’s body from the battlefield and give Zetian a warning that she needs to do their bidding as the sages did, and Shimin is alive. Yizhi reveals that the humans are not native to the planet; they’re the invaders, and the Hunduns are the native species.