‘Iron Widow’ by Xiran Jay Zhao: Pacific Rim robots battle aliens and the patriarchy

In our Iron Widow book review, we go on a wild ride with a sci-fi retelling of China’s only female emperor.

Iron Widow is a book about the pilots of giant qi-powered mechas, and the experience of reading it felt like being physically plugged into a creature of spirit and machine, riding something larger than the human brain can fathom, feeling incredibly powerful and altogether too tiny at the same time.

Xiran Jay Zhao’s debut novel is brutal and immersive. Set in a far-flung future or alternate reality, and inspired by historical China, human civilization in Huaxia has dragged itself back from the destruction of the alien “Hunduns,” massive bug-like creatures whose husks are used to form the Chrysalises—giant robots akin to the Jaegers of Pacific Rim, but beautiful and based on the animals of East Asian mythology.

Huaxia is a deeply patriarchal country, and so only boys can pilot a Chrysalis. Girls are used as “concubine pilots,” essentially qi batteries for the boy pilots, and even a single battle is fatal for the girls. Usually.

Enter Wu Zetian, a girl who enlists in the army so she can get close to the Chrysalis pilot who killed her sister. She is forced into battle as a concubine pilot, and instead of dying, she emerges as an Iron Widow, a girl who can drain her male partner of qi to power the Chrysalis.

It would be insufficient to describe Wu Zetian as a “strong female character” in this Iron Widow book review. Her options in life are severely limited due to her poverty and her gender; she has been disabled by bound feet since her childhood; she is subjected to degradation and assault whenever she steps out of line. Yet despite all of that, Zetian burns with an inner core of fury and perseverance. Her power is literally in her mind—she can fight and destroy foes on the battlefield of the spirit realm.

Becoming an Iron Widow does not make Zetian a valuable asset to the military; she is a dangerous deviant, capable of upsetting a delicate status quo that has been kept in place by censorship and propaganda. In order to deal with problematic Zetian, the army pairs her up with Li Shimin, a convicted murderer who has the rare ability to pilot the largest Chrysalis.

I will be honest that the part of Iron Widow I was most curious about was the polyamourous love triangle (the strongest of the shapes, as Zetian points out). One corner is Wu Zetian. The second is Li Shimin, who has suffered abuse and stigmatization as much as Zetian, and wrestles with his complicity in the deaths of concubine pilots even though he is still a prisoner and forced to pilot.

The third corner of the triad is Gao Yizhi. He comes from a powerful family, and befriends Zetian in secret. He uses his influence and wealth to help Zetian and Shimin navigate treachery and secrets. Yizhi is the more bookish and posh of the trio, but he gets a few satisfyingly badass moments of his own.

The relationship between the two boys is a bright spot in a book that is often grim and painful, and it is something I wanted to highlight in this Iron Widow book review. Their bond is sweet, Shimin’s traumas momentarily soothed by Yizhi’s gentleness. And of course they are united in their love for Zetian.

iron widow book review

In a novel that confronts patriarchy, it can be tempting to slip into black and white narrative, where there are clear villains and clear heroes, obviously wrong choices and obviously correct choices. Iron Widow does not do this. It acknowledges the complicated nature of a flawed system. Zetian hates that she is underestimated and undervalued because of her gender, but often has to decide to play into the system so that she can survive to fight another day.

Zetian never loses the fire of her rage, but she still develops throughout the course of the book. She is confronted with the gray morality of not just herself, but the antagonists around her. In one instance, she sees that the Chrysalis pilot who killed her sister has action figures in his apartment, a humanizing moment that rocks her certainty. She learns the uncomfortable truth that no one is all blameless or all guilty. Humans are humans, and they are more than the worst things they’ve done.

One of the most satisfying themes of Iron Widow is power and control. Zetian knows that she is controlled by a patriarchal culture and gender roles. Men support the system because it benefits them, but often women support the system just as much. Iron Widow does not cast judgment on these women but instead asks the question, “What choice do they have?” If survival is on the line, is there value in holding people to impossible standards?

Zetian also sees that shame is a powerful weapon wielded against her. Shame about her body, her sexuality, her relationships. Shame is a tool used to control. Shame is an illusion, invented by those in power to stay in power. In a book where the most important strength is the strength of the mind, it is a particularly resonant moment when Zetian decides that shame will not be used against her.

Iron Widow is a visceral read, and has white-knuckle moments of combat, both on the gargantuan scale of the Chrysalises and Hunduns, and within the feverish worlds of the pilot mindscapes. There are scenes of graphic violence, so be mindful if that is a trigger for you.

Zhao takes care with the complicated questions, and answers them in ways you might not expect. Who deserves compassion? Is it right to expect exploited people to be merciful to their exploiters? What are the illusions used to control people—shame, duty, religion, propaganda, gender?

So, I hope you come for the robots and the mindlinked co-pilots and the love triad. And then stay for freedom, power, and vengeance.

‘Iron Widow’ was released September 21, 2021

Buy Iron Widow by Xiran Jay Zhao from Penguin Random House, Bookshop.org, Book Depository, or Amazon. You can also add it to your Goodreads list.

This article was written by Subjectify contributor Megan Lank. Look for more recommendations on our books page.