You might have heard of the Chinese empress Wu Zetian, but you’ve never read about her the way Xiran Jay Zhao imagines her in Iron Widow. The newest YA novel marketed as Pacific Rim meets The Handmaid’s Tale, Iron Widow gives ancient Chinese history a sci-fi twist with this retelling of Wu Zetian, who in this iteration is a teen who sacrifices boys to power up robots. The result is a searing, if a bit convoluted, feminist novel that embraces a rich sense of worldbuilding to establish its character.
The story follows Zetian as she pursues a personal revenge mission under the guise of becoming a concubine-pilot, who is essentially meant to “serve” in all aspects the world’s male pilots. These male pilots are the ones in power; they control robots to battle aliens on the other side of the Great Wall. It’s a misogynistic system that ultimately concludes with the girls being sacrificed due to the psychological pressures of the job.
Zetian’s initial goal is to kill the esteemed pilot Yang Guang who caused her sister’s death. As she becomes more immersed in the world, however, and learns about the cruelties it inflicts, she becomes more intent on reclaiming her control as a woman.
Zhao’s writing is frenetic and powerful, as with their rendering of Zetian’s voice. In terms of excitement, Iron Window doesn’t disappoint. Zetian kills Yang Guang in the first quarter of the book, a precipitating incident that leads to her becoming the Iron Widow, a role in which instead of being the sacrificed, she is the one in control. It’s a profession that subverts the previously determined rules and goes to show Zetian’s thematic and narrative arc.
Zetian ends up having to partner with Li Shiming, a notorious pilot known as the Iron Demon. The relationship is an interesting aspect that Zhao weaves together with the world they exist in. But Zetian is at the forefront of the story, and Zhao offers a penetrating glimpse into who she is through the focal point of gender dynamics.
Zetian as a character isn’t exactly likable, but that’s perhaps what makes her so compelling as a person; the decisions that she makes are grounded in and a response to the patriarchal society she lives in. Zhao pays homage to Chinese mythology with elements like a nine-tailed fox while giving Zetian her own modern spin with distinct language and experiences. Zhao alludes to Chinese history with Zetian’s footbinding, and there’s also a wider commentary about how ethnic minority groups in China are treated with Li Shimin’s backstory. Zhao carries out all of these intersecting cultural and individual narratives in a nuanced and engaging fashion.
However, this treatment of the story does have its shortcomings. Because Iron Widow relies so much on explaining the world’s mechanics, Zhao’s extensive worldbuilding occasionally achieves the opposite effect by confusing the audience. Zhao throws readers into a gripping setting from the get-go, but even then the action is mixed with hints and fragments of exposition that distract the reader. The suspense in a conversation between Zetian and Yang Guang, for example, is tinged with explanatory interjections about the context of the dialogue. It’s not quite clear if this is the kind of worldbuilding Iron Widow intends, but it’s not very effective in focusing on the action.
While it could tighten up its worldbuilding, Iron Widow cultivates an incredibly creative and original premise where something is happening every second of the story. Zhao has captured a sense of structure that follows Zetian from her beginnings as a concubine-pilot to a woman legend. The story, like Zetian herself, is revolutionary.