Xiran Jay Zhao’s Iron Widow was billed as an angry feminist tale inspired by Chinese history and featuring anime-style mech battles. That billing didn’t appeal to me much, but I heard so many people talking about its quality that I thought I should give it a read anyways. A few days later, I feel comfortable saying that the billing is extremely accurate. And as far as the quality, there was a lot to like, but also some aspects that didn’t totally work for me.
Iron Widow takes place in a Chinese-inspired future society, where an invasion of alien Hundun has destroyed uncountable technological innovations and reduced human society to a constant war for survival. Fortunately, Hundun hides also provide the raw materials to create the towering mechas that—when piloted by a male with sufficient spirit pressure—also serve as humanity’s greatest defensive weapon. The only problem is that the mechas require a male/female pairing to operate successfully, and the weaker women have a tendency to die in battle, overwhelmed by the power of their paired man. But Wu Zetien’s older sister, after joining the military, did not even make it as far as this ugly death on the battlefield. She was killed by her partner before setting foot in a mecha. That partner, being a star pilot, faced no consequences from military leadership. But Zetien vows that he will face consequences from her.
If there’s one element that sticks with a reader of Iron Widow, it’s Zetien’s justified rage at a society that considers women acceptable sacrifices in service of the male pilots’ ability to fight (and a whole lot more—I haven’t even mentioned foot-binding, but Zetien surely does). The painstaking portrayal of institutional misogyny drives Zetien’s all-consuming anger, which veritably flies off the page in a vivid first-person narration.
In one way, I appreciate that Zetien’s response takes such a blunt and powerful form. Contemporary fantasy novels—particularly young adult novels—are notorious for heroines with uncannily contemporary feminist views despite no access to feminist writings and misogynistic cultures preaching the opposite message at every turn. But Zetien has no positive feminist vision for the world. She just knows that her society is stacked against her, and she’ll see it burn regardless of the consequences. Surely whatever replaces it can’t be worse.
On the other hand, “burn it down” rage usually isn’t enough to drive my personal interest in a story (it’s why I still haven’t picked up The Rage of Dragons, despite an avalanche of positive reviews). It can be part of really interesting character work when the consequences get examined more closely—The Poppy War is a book that I thought did this quite well—but stories without that counterbalance are a harder sell.
I also found the battle scenes themselves to be somewhat underwhelming. They set the stage for some really strong psychological work–and probably would’ve been better off focusing on the psychological battles and less on the mechanics of the external battles–but there’s so much time spent explaining the various types of spirit and their interplay without a whole lot of payoff. And yet the fighting is still superior to an extended segment on pilot public relations in the book’s third section, which slowed the pace without adding much depth.
But ultimately, despite my complaints, Iron Widow did such an excellent job with the societal secrets that it still managed to have me intrigued about the next installment. We know from the beginning that the poor—and especially poor women—are intentionally kept ignorant, and Zhao periodically dropped hints about the shape of those lies, but did so without robbing the revelations of their power. It’s really excellent work, and when combined with the power of Zetien’s narrative voice and her psychological struggles to stay alive when paired with powerful male pilots, it makes for a plenty worthwhile read, even if an imperfect one.
Recommended if you like: feminist rage, societies with secrets, mech battles.
Can I use it for Bingo? It’s hard mode for Asian Setting, 2021 Publication, and Revenge-Seeking Character, and it also has Chapter Titles.
Overall rating: 15 of Tar Vol’s 20. Four stars on Goodreads.