‘Iron Widow’ by Xiran Jay Zhao – fierce, innovative YA Science Fiction

‘Iron Widow’ was one of the most surprising books I read in 2021. In the first two chapters, the book roared into life, filled with a fierce anger, an intense rage that was ready to rip and tear, to burn down the world to get revenge. It was a great start but I doubted that even this indomitable young woman would be able to maintain her passion for the 400 pages of the book. It turned out that, like almost everyone in the book, I underestimated the depth of her hatred, the lengths she would go to and the price she would pay to get her revenge.

The story is set in a far future where what is left of humanity lives behind the Great Wall, their only defence against the hoards of faceless Hundun, alien creatures made of spirit metal. The Great Wall is defended by huge fighting machines (think Pacific Rim but add in an ability to grow and transform depending on the power fed to them). The machines are powered by Qi or Spirit Level that enables machine and pilot to become one. The small number of young men with Spirit Levels high enough to be pilots are lauded as heroes, with massive followings on social media and all the privileges of wealth and rank, as long as they keep fighting. But that’s not the whole story. Each machine needs two people to power it: a man (the pilot) and a woman (the concubine pilot). The difference is that, with rare exceptions, the women do not survive major battles because the male pilot consumes all of their Qi, their life force, to boost his own power.

The initial trigger for the vengeance-hungry rage that drives eighteen-year-old  Zetian, the main character, is the death of her older sister, sold by her family to be a concubine to a star Pilot whose concubines are known to die faster than anyone else’s. Zeitan’s plan is simple: become the Pilot’s concubine and then get close enough to kill him. She does not have a plan beyond that as she doesn’t expect to survive the experience.

One of the things that I liked most about this story is that Xiran Jay Zhao kept surprising me. Each surprise led to things being worse than I had thought they were and each time things got worse,  Zetian’s rage grew. The first revenge happens fairly early in the book. Except it doesn’t result in  Zetian’s death. Instead, the hierarchy that she hates and that hates her, finds a way to use her to their advantage and she finds a way to survive, endure and plot her revenge.

‘Iron Widow’ is marketed as a Young Adult book. I can see that it fits the category. I think it also works as Science Fiction without any caveats attached. There were times when I felt that Xiran Jay Zhao was holding back a little on the descriptions of the polyamorous relationship that Zeitan develops. The passion was there but the action was much less explicit than the violence in the action scenes. On the whole, I think this was a sound decision. It didn’t weaken the storytelling, it widened the audience and it didn’t distract from the main emotion of the book: an indomitable will shaped by an insatiable rage.

‘Iron Widow’ reads well as an action and adventure story. The tension is high, the technology is beautifully imagined and vividly described, the politics are brutal, ruthless and complex, no one can be trusted and almost nothing is what it appears to be.

What made me sit back and applaud was that, as well as delivering all this, Xiran Jay Zhao gives one of the most compelling and uncompromising accounts of the choices women face in a fundamentally misogynistic culture.

This is how Zetian, a teenage peasant girl living in a squalid Frontier village, views her own refusal to submit and to become the kind of daughter her mother and grandmother have tried to train her to be. The kind of daughter her father can sell to the military for a good price or marry off to make an alliance. She says:

Some of us were born to be used and discarded. We can’t afford to simply go along with the flow of life, because nothing in this world has been created, built, or set up in our favor. If we want something, we have to push back against everything around us and take it by force.

In a culture where a belief in Karma is used to foster compliance and passivity,  Zetian says Karma is


‘not something that can be prayed into existence or counted on to fall from the sky. It has to be hand-delivered.'”

She recognises that women contribute to the maintenance of the system that oppresses them. Her grandmother was the one who crippled her by breaking her feet, folding and binding the smashed bones and torn flesh back on itself so that  Zetian will have the small feet that men think a woman should have. She sees that her mother has accepted that she and her daughters have very little value and the value that they have comes from making men feel better about themselves. Zeitan believes that:

“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.”

What I liked most was that this analysis isn’t dispassionate. It never even considers compromise or forgiveness or reform. It is an analysis that says, ‘I am in a society that hates me and that wants me to hate myself. I will take that hate and turn it on them. I will be their worst nightmare. I will be a woman who does everything she can to destroy them.’

It’s powerful stuff and skilfully done.

The final chapter of the book delivered one more surprise. Not a cliff-hanger but a game-changer. Now I’m looking forward to seeing what Xiran Jay Zhao will do in the second ‘Iron Widow’ book. Whatever it is, my money is on  Zetian in any fight.


Xiran Jay Zhao is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of the Iron Widow series and Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor

A first-gen Hui Chinese immigrant from small-town China to Vancouver, Canada, they were raised by the Internet and made the inexplicable decision to leave their biochem degree in the dust to write books and make educational content instead.

Sources: http://xiranjayzhao.com

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