How does one describe a book like Iron Widow? Well, we will take a look at the official synopsis in a moment, but first, some background.
For those of you unfamiliar with this novel, it was crafted by Xiran Jay Zhao. A recent social media sensation thanks to their simultaneously wise and wisecracking Youtube videos, frank Twitter presence, this is their debut work. Before you read this book, I would strongly recommend you take a look at some of their videos on the Empress Wu if you have the time. (Keep in mind, they are both quite long and separated into two parts: Part #1 & Part #2)
While the main character is loosely based on Wu Zetian, understanding Empress Wu Zhao's rise can be beneficial to understanding Iron Widow's Zetian. A number of other historical figures feature as characters in the novel, but many of them are not as critical or follow their usual assumed personality types as Zetian does.
In Huaxia, the highest honor for a young girl is to be selected as a concubine-pilot: supporters paired up with male pilots to power up Chrysalises, the giant transforming mechas that humanity relies on to battle the massive aliens that lurk beyond the Great Wall. But the honor often ends in death, and when 18-year-old Zetian's sister is killed by an ace male pilot, Zetian signs up to avenge her. The vengeance is swift, brutal - and unexpected, leaving Zetian labeled as the Iron Widow, a much-feared kind of female pilot who can sacrifice boys to power up Chrysalises instead of the other way around.
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 a taste of power, she will not cower so easily. She will miss no opportunity to leverage her and Shimin's combined might and infamy, and survive an attempt on her life, until she can figure out exactly why the pilot system relies so heavily on destroying girls' lives - and dismantle it for good.
This list is likely incomplete, but the book contains the following topics: Alcoholism, Forced Substance Dependency, Depression, On-screen Romance & Sexual tension, Off-screen Sexual Activity, Romance, Polyamory, Sexism & Sexually Abusive Language, Toxic presentations of Social Media, State Propaganda, Loss of Memory & Memory Bleed between characters, Mind-Death / Death of Personality, Gender-Based Violence (off-screen rape, threats of rape, spousal & child abuse, institutional gynocide, discussions of honor killings), Female Ritual Mutilation (foot binding/lotus feet), Dowries, Indentured Servitude, Forced Prison Labor, Forced Medical Procedures (organ harvesting), Betrayal by Trusted Figures, Torture, Murder, Assault & Attempted Murder of a Major Character, Injury & Death of Major Characters, Suicide Ideation, Discussion of Past Suicide, Familicide, Colonialism, Racism & Ethnocentrism, Genocide
The following discussion will try not to go into into spoilers much beyond the synopsis above.
The action of Iron Widow follows two main battles. The first is the battle between humanity and a seemingly alien species known as the Hundun. Huaxia is a Han Chinese-coded science fiction civilization that, according to legend, lost most of its past and history. However, Huaxia and potentially other civilizations gained the ability to resist the Hundun with the invention around Chrysalises several centuries prior to the action in the book. Chrysalises are created from defeated remains of Hundun and are powered by the qi of their operators, a male-female pair of pilots. Unless a pair are a Balanced Match there is a serious chance that one of the two pilots may loose themselves in intense battle, their personality and life force being subsumed by the other.
The second battle is that between Zetian and Huaxia's societal expectations for her. As a Neo-Confucian influenced, Han Chinese coded-society, it has many of the patriarchal practices that existed in Chinese historically. Most of the characters we encounter are male and many of the female characters are subservient to a man or are expected to be so in some capacity. As the synopsis mentions, most of the pilots dying due to being subsumed by their partners are female pilots, meaning that there is a market for young women with strong qi being bought by army from families and strong propaganda encouraging their participation in the Human Liberation Army. Because of all this and the suppression that Zetian has experienced in her life already, she burns with a strong fire to break the system that kills and abuses so many women just like her.
Both elements of this action will be quite familiar to many fans of certian types of anime, manga/manwha/manhua, and webtoons. While I will not point to any in particular, the biological mecha driven by the pilot's life force, Zetian's unexpected rise, and her desire to institute social change at almost any cost to improve the lot the suppressed in society hearkened back to many I have personally experienced over the years. However, I feel that Xiran Jay Zhao's has delivered an excellent interpretation of these themes. They mention in the Acknowledgements that there was a originally a much more graphic "straight-up R18-rated" version early on in the production process of this novel. I kind of wish I had gotten to see that beta version as well.
It is this second battle that demands the bulk of our attention and it does so with a raw, aggressive style. This is exemplified by a rather graphic scenes where Zetian reflects on her foot-binding, the clashes between Zetian's feminist ideas and her family, the sexual and social tension that exists between three main leads and misunderstandings from their drastically different backgrounds, and the way Zetian gets vengeance for her sister. Zetian capitalizes on her failure to meet some of society's social expectations to give her further power while keeping other ways she breaks the norms like her unconventional relationships and powerful ambitions as secret as possible.
One powerful realization after another throw Zetian's plans into chaos as an even greater target for her righteous ire rises before her throughout the course of the book, She and her growing band of conspirators manage to find ways to just stay above water even in the face of betrayal and some of the most powerful beings in Huaxia. By the end of the book, we are ready to witness some triumph going into the sequel, but the toll for the characters has been so high and the cost for success and the risks promise to be higher still going forward. Zetian's vision for tearing down the patriarchy that killed her sister and so many others may be worth it for Huaxia as a whole. Still, one must ask, can Zetian herself see it through to the end or will the butcher's bill break her beyond repair before she completes her work?
If good novels could sing, Iron Widow the song below; painful, plotting revenge, and somewhat chaotic, but moving toward toward something momentous even if Zetian might not get to see the end. Julie C Dao's assessment that this novel "is brutal, bloodthirsty, and full of rage" is on-target. Finally, Ashley Mackenzie really hit the cover art out of the park, capturing exactly what I imagine one of the propaganda photographers would have taken of Zetian. I would totally give a 10/10 and I eagerly await breaking down the sequel that is currently expected in 2022 like an angry hundun.