Iron Widow

iron widow book

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Book Review

Wu Zetian is sold by her family, just like her older sister was, to be a young concubine-pilot in a massive mecha war machine. Problem is, girls often die quickly in that position. The male pilots drain them of their energies and toss them aside. But Zetain isn’t concerned about her own longevity. She simply wants to seek deadly revenge for her abused big sister. It’s time that boys learned what disposable means. 

Plot Summary

In Huaxia, all the land’s young boys would love to be Chrysalis pilots. To have the kind of spirit pressure, the mental power, to move and control one of those gigantic war machines would be a rare and wonderful treat.

Sure, the boys have to partner with a girl concubine-pilot—for it takes a great deal of joined mental energy (or qi) to move those mighty vessels—but it’s the boy who becomes almost an instant hero after fighting off giant alien invaders. The girls who slip into the seat next to them … generally end up dead. Or at least, very soon. It takes such a huge quantity of the incredibly vital qi to move those transforming machines that when the two pair, the weaker female very often loses both her qi and her mind as well.

So yeah, it’s an easy call to say young boys would jump at the chance. And equally easy to suggest that girls have very little desire to be Chrysalis pilots. Very, very little. In fact, most girls have to actually be sold into service by their family before they’d get anywhere near a pilot’s seat. And most would far rather be sold into marriage or some other form of bondage before heading into the army.

Of course, 18-year-old Wu Zetian is not most young women. Not only is she willing, she is eager to be sold to the government. Her parents may think it’s out of loyalty to the family: She has unnaturally high levels of qi and might earn them more in monthly payments by surviving longer. But she has a completely different reason for going: She wants blood!

You see, Zetian’s big sister was also sold to the government not all that long ago. And before she even got a chance to step into the Chrysalis seat, she was abused and killed by a pilot named Yang Guang. And because this foul young man is revered for his high qi, he wasn’t even reprimanded, much less punished. Girls are disposable. They’re replaceable. High-qi boys, meanwhile, are valued.

If Wu Zetian has anything to say about it, however, this particular high-qi boy will die a horrible death.

Her plans for revenge involve a small metal spike hidden in a hairpin, a moment of intimacy, and a ripped-open jugular. But she isn’t picky. She’ll use anything in the moment: a club, a plate, her teeth. She’ll do whatever it takes. She’s determined to show a privileged male what pain feels like. With any luck she’ll even let the world see the kill through government cameras.

It will take lies, manipulation and flirtations. But she’ll let the world see  what disposable looks like.

Christian Beliefs

None.

Other Belief Systems

We read abstract discussions about gods that watch over Huaxia and govern the land from on high. But some conversations make those overseers sound much more physical than spiritual. People talk of the gods descending and taking the husks of destroyed alien Hunduns—creatures that are mostly made of something called spirit metal—back up to the heavens. With time we learn that these beings aren’t so heavenly or spiritual at all.

In other scenes there is a sense that people believe, at least, in some kind of spiritual afterlife or reincarnation. Zetian tells her mother, for instance, “In the next life, I hope we have nothing to do with each other.” And someone else says, “I will kill myself when they lock me up, and then I will haunt you.”

Authority Roles

By and large, the military overseers, government officials and media moguls of Huaxia (those that Wu Zetian meets, anyway) are all manipulative, self-focused individuals. They have an overarching goal of keeping Huaxia afloat and besting the attacking enemy at the gates, but they’re more than happy to sacrifice any pilot or Chrysalis if it means strengthening their power. And we see all of that play out.

Wu Zetian’s family members are all self-focused and relatively hateful, too. And even the rules of the culture—a mindset that saw to it that Zetian’s feet as a child were broken brutally and wrapped in a small lotus shape—are a torment to the young protagonist anti-hero. There are actually only two people in Wu Zetain’s life who she can trust: a wealthy boyfriend named Yizhi and a powerful pilot named Shimin. They each have people close to them who they want to murder as well. And Wu Zetian eventually bonds with both in a polyamorous sort of relationship.

The reason author Xiran Jay Zhao paints nearly everyone here as duplicitous and generally hateful is to justify Wu Zetian’s own hatred and foul choices. Without giving too much away, I can say that her search for revenge doesn’t quite play out the way she plans originally. She is tortured and tormented, but she’s able to walk a narrow edge between those who revile her and her own power base. And in the course of the story she expands her desire for revenge to a much larger and more brutal landscape.

The point behind it all (and Huaxia’s feudal Chinese-style disregard for women in general) would seem to metaphorically illustrate broad misogynistic treatment of women in our world. Unfortunately Xiran takes Wu Zetian’s vengeful pushback to an extreme and ultimately paints a dark resolution of one-dimensional deadliness. Something that young readers could misinterpret.

Profanity & Violence

Language here can be quite foul at times, including uses of f- and s-words and other crudities such as “a–hole.” The military overseers use alcohol to purposely addict and control a powerful individual.

Wu Zetian talks at length about the many ways women are abused (physically and sexually) and treated as second class citizens in the Huaxian culture. We see her beaten and choked by male attackers. In fact, early on, Zetian admits that she doesn’t fear death for her planned actions, “Being alive has been painful, exhausting, and disappointing,” she says. We also hear stories of Shimin being beaten and pummeled as a way to control him. And when he takes of his shirt, his body is a mass of “muscles and scars.” Several different people are tortured, including a sort of waterboarding torment with alcohol.

During a Chrysalis battle, someone is dominated mentally and dies. And we read of numerous battles where the huge machines tear Hunduns (and sometimes each other) to pieces with enormous melee blows and qi-powered blasts. Chrysalises are destroyed with their pilots, and in one case Wu Zetian sees the pilots’ blood dribble out of the large craft.

Sexual Content

Were told of the many sexual concubines that the male pilots generally avail themselves of. And it’s made plain that not only do they mind-meld with their female co-pilots, they also have the option to link with them sexually if they’re so inclined.

Sexuality in Zetian’s personal story, however, builds slowly and is always implied more than visualized. We see Zetian kiss several different young men. And then she begins fondling, caressing and eventually makes her way to sex with Yizhi (again, not fully described). With time however, there are also caresses shared between Yizhi and Shimin and it’s clear that the two young men are attracted to one another. They kiss. Wu Zetian gives them permission to make love together and opens the door for all three of them to share the pleasure of one another’s bodies. “There aren’t enough nice feelings in the world,” she reasons. “So, why deprive ourselves?”

Discussion Topics

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None.

Additional Comments

Iron Widow has garnered a lot of recent buzz. It’s promoted with the blurb: “Pacific Rim meets The Handmaid’s Tale in this blend of Chinese history and mecha science fiction for YA readers.” And that blending of sci-fi action/adventure and Chinese history does indeed give this book an exotic appeal. However, there are also a number of different statements made about the interchangeability of gender and the pleasure of casual, polyamorous sex. Those elements, the story’s crude profanity, and the bloody, misandristic revenge theme that runs throughout, make this a bleak and callow read.

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Book reviews cover the content, themes and worldviews of fiction books, not necessarily their literary merit, and equip parents to decide whether a book is appropriate for their children. The inclusion of a book’s review does not constitute an endorsement by Focus on the Family.

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