Iron Widow is a searing debut novel

SFU alum Xiran Jay Zhao writes phenomenal science-fantasy

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Illustrated book cover of a Chinese women warrior, standing in the centre of the page as the body of a red, orange, and yellow mythical creature twists around her
Wu Zetian, reintroduced. Image: Penguin Random House Canada

By: Kelly Chia, Staff Writer

Iron Widow is a historical reimagination of Wu Zetian, China’s only woman emperor, set in a society and culture that resembles pre-colonial China. Portrayed as an 18 year old girl, Zetian is sent to fight Hunduns, mythological aliens that exist beyond the Great Wall, in mecha suits called Chrysalises. For girls, this is a rite of passage: they fly the Chrysalis with a man, a process that almost always kills the concubine women co-pilots. When Zetian not only survives, but overpowers the pilot that took her older sister’s life, she is paired with a man who is the most powerful and fearsome, Li Shimin, as a means to control her. 

Despite all the action, SFU alum Xiran Jay Zhao’s debut science-fantasy novel isn’t bogged down by exposition. It takes you into a world of fluid, passionate characters who can’t wait to take their vengeance on a deeply patriarchal society, and you cheer for them every step of the way. There’s a violent undercurrent of injustice Zetian moves through, but there’s also sharp-witted humour, which makes the book progress faster. 

Zetian’s anger starkly contrasts her healing relationship with Shimin and Yizhi, who find refuge in each other. When I first read this book, I was worried their polyamory would be an incidental plot device to add some queer diversity into a story. In a lot of YA romance, characters are rushed into marketable love triangles, making the books difficult to read. There are also often blurred lines of consent for teenage characters. But Shimin, Yizhi, and Zetian’s love is touching and doesn’t feel like a device to make the story more dramatic. It’s something that helps them grow and strengthen as characters.

As grounded as the main characters are, they are also quite chaotic: you understand why they do what they do — but they do things to extreme levels. 

Zetian is rightly filled with rage, but the book also shows how much she doesn’t know. And it doesn’t necessarily condone her violence either. The book shows how Zetian, in many ways, is a villain but it also means she doesn’t need to be placed on a protagonist’s moral pedestal.

Zetian unabashedly chooses the hard path of undue justice, even if it means dismantling everything she knows. She sits so comfortably in her rage in a way I’m not used to seeing. 

The revolution Zetian pursues is equally personal and political. In the abrupt process of uprooting gendered power dynamics, there’ll be lasting effects on the very people she’s trying to save. She’s not some thoughtless rage machine, either. She is humbled multiple times. Reading about the world she has to buck against, I really rooted for her. 

Overall, Iron Widow is a riveting read. The magical elements are easy to understand, and they never overshadow the furious beating heart of the story, Wu Zetian. 

If Iron Widow inspires you to find out more about the real Wu Zetian and Chinese history, I highly suggest visiting Zhao’s Youtube page, which analyzes many Chinese media depictions, like Avatar, Mulan, and Over the Moon.