Book Review – Iron Widow by Xiran Jay Zhao
My Rating – 5 out of 5
Plot Summary (Storyline) – Iron Widow
Xiran Jay Zhao’s young adult novel awes the reader with a reimagined retelling of the only female emperor in Chinese History, Wu Zetian. Iron Widow brings to life a world that is paradoxically both futuristic in technology and deeply rooted in ancient traditions. Zhao carefully and beautifully blends the two together, resulting in a world that is enthralling to read about. Huaxia (the nation at the center of the story), however, is backward in its treatment of women. At the forefront of the emotions that this book ignites in the reader is the righteous anger at the misogyny the women have to face.
A book that gets you involved emotionally within the first few chapters is almost certain to be one rollercoaster of a ride. Wu Zetian, the eighteen-year-old protagonist, will have you audibly cheering for her, as her no-nonsense attitude, sharp tongue, and non-conformist attitude keep on giving (basically imagine the embodiment of ‘cause, darling, I’m a nightmare dressed like a daydream). Huaxia is faced with almost daily threats from animal-like beings called Hunduns, which it defends against by deploying Chrysalises (basically animalistic versions of Transformers or more Pacific Rim to be exact). These Chrysalises are piloted by male pilots who have female concubine pilots to partner them, and they pool together their power to operate and weaponize the Chrysalises.
The downside? The female pilots almost never survive more than a single operation. The explanation? Women are naturally weaker than men. Wu Zetian’s elder sister was sent to be a concubine pilot (read: sacrificed). But she never even made it to her first operation. And Zetian is determined to assassinate Yang Guang, the pilot responsible for killing her, a pilot who is incidentally the second most powerful pilot currently, and definitely the most popular. Zetian, who by the way has a rather high spirit pressure, succeeds in killing Yang Guang, and many a reader heaved a sigh of satisfaction then. She is faced with the hate of the nation, but she is of course, unperturbed.
She is then partnered with Li Shimin, a prisoner on death row, and the most powerful pilot in Huaxia currently. Meanwhile, Zetian’s secret rich boyfriend, Gao Yizhi, has followed her to the wall and joins her as a junior strategist. Footbinding, a practice we have all heard of, is practiced in Huaxia, with Zetian herself having bound feet. The process and Zetian’s own terror are described in agonizing detail, offering a window into the horrors of being born female. Zetian has to move with the help of a cane or a wheelchair most of the time.
Zetian is not swift to forgive and never forgets how the men of her family treated all the women and is quick to retaliate and call her family out for only seeing her and her sister as sources of money and nothing else. Shimin with his dark and troubled past is not what the rumors make him out to be and only adds to his enigmatic allure. Yizhi is sweet and devoted to Zetian and Shimin.
Conclusion – Book Review of Iron Widow
The book delivers in every way, with Asian and queer representation, fighting against systemic misogyny and the societally perpetuated mandate that your family only ever wants the best for you, being a few highlights. If snarky, queer, morally grey, opinionated, and fiery protagonists, historical retellings, beautiful world-building, humorous chapter titles, and books that end on unbelievable cliffhangers are your thing, then look no further.
** This is the first contribution of my co-author to this blog – Spriha, look forward to many more on these pages!**
*I hope you have enjoyed reading this book review as much as I have enjoyed writing this! Do watch this space for more such reviews and navigate through the links below for more… Thank you!! *