Iron Widow is a YA Pacific Rim meets The Handmaid’s Tale retelling of the rise of Wu Zetian, the only female emperor in Chinese history. The series follows an 18-year-old re-imagining of her as she avenges her sister’s murder by an intensely patriarchal military system that pairs boys and girls up to pilot giant magical mecha based on creatures from East Asian myth (Nine-Tailed Fox, Moon Rabbit, etc.), but in which boy pilots are treated like celebrities, while girl pilots must serve as their concubines. (summary from author’s website)
It will surprise no one to know that the concubines generally die in battle, sacrificed for the male pilots in the ongoing war with the Hundun.
From page one Zhao shows us a society where women are being abused, deformed, devalued and discarded, and then keeps making it worse. Right along with Wu Zetian, we know how awful it is, and yet are still somehow surprised by how much worse it is than we thought. One of the characters even admits that they can’t let people know that women can be strong than men, that men might die in the Chrysalis mecha, because who would risk their son’s life? Or when her parents beg her to spare her brother’s life, when for her murdered sister they only complained that she’d been so inconsiderate to die outside of battle, depriving them of the payout. But wait – there’s more awfulness! To go along with the violent misogyny we also have racism, with the Han despising the Rongdi (which includes Iron Demon and Zetian’s eventual battle-partner Li Shimin). Zhao constructs a society so awful you can’t help but cheer for Zetian to burn it all down.
But my very favourite part is the trio of main characters. Gao Yizhi, a wealthy, soft-skinned younger son whose devotion to Zetian is such that at the end of the book he literally incinerates his own father who is trying to blackmail Zetian. Li Shimin, an unexpected academic whose life gets derailed because of racism, used as a killing machine (of the enemy and girls) by the army. The bit where Shimin confesses to Zetian that Yizhi’s skin just looks so soft is adorable. In some alternate universe I hope Shimin gets the quiet scholar’s life he deserves.
But it all centres on Wu Zetian, the Iron Widow who killed the pilot who’d murdered her sister (she very nearly fell for his “you’re not like the other girls” bit). The girl who spent a lifetime raging against a society that said she had no value, who took that rage and overthrew that power structure. Who takes that rage and does terrible things, knowing all the time that she’s doing terrible things but deciding that’s the price she will pay/make others pay to stop the slaughter of girls. Who make Bruce “I’m always angry” Banner seem mildly annoyed. Zetian has spent her entire young life being told she is less, and decides no. She will burn down the world for the chance to make it better.
And Zetian knows this, she is aware of her anger, her burning focus. She’s even afraid sometimes to show any “softer” emotions, mainly her love for Yizhi and Shimin. Shimin also struggles with this, but not because he’s afraid to be soft; Shimin has spent so long being loathed for who he is and what he’s made to do (including killing a co-pilot he loved) that Zetian’s affection is hard for him to accept. Yizhi, oddly, is the best at relationships: when it’s obvious Zetian has feelings for Shimin as well, Yizhi says that it was a bit hard at first but he realised it wasn’t a competition and anyway, he and Shimin end up kissing.
Apart from her ferocious anger, the other thing that stands out about Zetian is how she frees herself from all the fears that society would use to hold her back. Fear of death? She fully expected to sacrifice her own life to avenge her sister, and was as surprised as anyone when she survived. Held at gunpoint later, she walks up to the soldier, puts her head to his gun, and says “go ahead, shoot”. He doesn’t and everyone is seriously unsettled. Shame? Family ties? Friends? She lets it all go, everything in pursuit of her goal.
Zetian does it: she finds an ancient dragon, literally smashes the old power structure, and sets out to create a new order. With Yizhi at her side, but not Shimin, who died when fellow pilots betrayed him. Just as she’s starting out though, she gets the biggest shock: the Hundun aren’t the invaders: they are.