Books & Literature

Book Review: Iron Widow, by Xiran Jay Zhao

YA FANTASY: When Zetian offers herself up as a concubine-pilot, her plan is to assassinate the man responsible for her sister’s death. But on emerging from the cockpit unscathed after her first battle, she plans to overturn the entire patriarchal military system.

An intricate blend of past meets future.

Xiran Jay Zhao’s Iron Widow features admirable yet tortured souls that are breaking the mould in the futuristic world she has depicted. The futuristic world is controlled by money, the media, and the patriarchy, with female protagonist Wu Zetian’s role in it being traditional. As a woman raised in a poor Chinese family, she is of little use as a female. As such, just like her sister, she sees her future—to be used as a tool for money by her parents and sold off as a concubine co-pilot in the military.

The battles of the military are streamed to media channels and the money raised keep the patriarchy and media in power. It is a world of celebrity dreams, a futuristic world where pilots are the heroes as they transform chrysalises into giant robots during battle and fight the enemy Hunduns.

To be a pilot is to be glorified, however it is gender specific. Men are celebrated and find the pathway easily, whereas women are more often than not sacrificed as their co-pilots. Women continue to tread the path for two reasons. They may dream of being one of a few females who is a “Balanced Match” with their male co-pilot, an illustrious yet rare rank. Otherwise, their family need the money raised by their sacrifice. Although a serious plot, Zhao embeds snippets of humour throughout.

Bringing in traditional Chinese thought, which believes there is good and bad in everyone and each differently balanced, the three main characters in this novel are direct products of both their temperament and experiences. For example, Wu Zetian is fiery and courageous, however her desire to kill is driven by the hurt endured by the loss of her sister. Li Shimin is her co-pilot and not what he seems. In battle, people’s energies mix creating a synergy powerful enough to transform their chrysalises into hero form, to battle the enemies. There is much dialogue around qi (Chinese energy) which, in this world, can be measured.

It is an incredibly unique plot combining historical Chinese traditions on gender and includes characters based on past Emperors and Chinese mythology, all of which exist in a sci-fi world. However, Zhao adds another dimension to the plot, so it is not all battle, fantasy, and mixed loyalties.

Entwined in the plot is love and romance of both the traditional and modern kind. Wu Zetian has Gao Yizhi and they love each other, yet due to his class (he is part of the patriarchy by birth), by tradition, they should not be together. He sees her choices and wants to break the mould. Equally, she sees her choices, and after surprisingly surviving her first battle with co-pilot Li Shimin, also seeks to break the mould, albeit on a larger scale.

Zhao’s novel consistently gives you a visual picture of the imaginary world she has created, whilst at the same time connects you to the characters, making you laugh, cry, and feel their frustrations. It is her debut novel and will keep you spellbound from start to finish.

Reviewed by Rebecca Wu

This review is the opinion of the reviewer and not Glam Adelaide.

Distributed by: Bloomsbury
Released: September 2021
RRP: $18.99

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