I’ve been seeing Xiran Jay Zhao pop up in my twitter feed a lot over the last couple of years. While I haven’t followed them myself prior to reading their book, several of my mutuals did and often shared their tweets. I’ve read many great tweets and threads regarding racism against Asians over the pandemic. Lest you think Xiran is all politics and no humour, check out their profile pic. They promised friends they would wear a cow costume for their official author photo if they ever got published and they are nothing if not a person of their word apparently 😅
Xiran Jay Zhao is a first generation Canadian immigrant and lives in Vancouver where they have been studying disease research. They love memes, and anime, and books, and Chinese history, and all sorts of other fun things. Xiran seems like someone who would be fun to hang out with. The smart friend who also does dumb stuff with you 😜
Xiran Jay Zhao describes Iron Widow as “a YA Pacific Rim meets The Handmaid’s Tale retelling of the rise of Wu Zetian, the only female emperor in Chinese history?”. I personally would describe it as a cyberpunk harem tale. The world-building and characters in the story are phenomenal. I was absolutely engrossed. One of the things that caught my attention in the book occurred before the story even started. There is a bit of history about the historical Empress Wu Zetian and then it was followed by a very solid trigger warning for the some of the things that came up in the story. Being somewhat familiar with Asian historical dramas, and harem books, and history in general, I figured I would be up for some sexual assault scenarios. I very much appreciated being able to go into the book with a heads up and the confidence that the author themself had assured me that no rapes would be described in detail and if they occurred it would be all off-page. Some people think trigger warnings “ruin the surprise” in a book, but as a friend on Twitter said, “you know what else ruins a book? A surprise rape scene”. I was surprised by the trigger warning page, which also mentioned various forms of non-sexual violence that shows up in the book. I appreciated it. It was a great start and I wish that more authors would use them. (Ask me about the book where the author sprang cutting on it’s unsuspecting readers having not only no trigger warning but also no mention of a very major plot point in any of the descriptions anywhere 😒)
The story itself was a smooth and exciting ride. The romance was somewhat unexpected for a YA novel. I mean, I expected it because I had seen the author tweet about it, but I was still surprised by how it unfolded and how solid it was. I won’t spoil it here, but if you’re curious it’s not hard to find. It’s not really any sort of secret, but it’s not in the Goodreads blurb so I let you suss it out or not as your interest leads you 😉
The basic premise of the story is that 2000 years prior, giant alien bugs called Hunduns took over the earth destroying all the civilizations of the world. Humans have learned to create mech armour units out of the dead husks of Hundun bodies. In order to control these mechs two pilots are needed, one male and one female. And of course because patriarchy, the male pilots are heroes of society while the female pilots, or Pilot Concubines, are sacrificed for their energy. There are few Pilot Concubines who survive even one battle let alone more than one. It’s considered a great honour to serve, even though most girls have no choice one way or the other.
I really loved the way that Xiran Jay Zhao has melded ancient Chinese history with mythology and modern/futuristic tech. The story flows from one to another with little or no turbulence. I got a kick out of the names and stories that I recognized from dramas and books. It was interesting to see how the author utilized them and changed them to fit this futuristic timeline and story. The heroine is a great character with strength and wit and intelligence. Themes of masculine and feminine are delved into with interesting outcomes. This is not a straight re-telling of the history of Wu Zetian, but rather an imagining of what a person like her might do faced with the technology of a future the original Empress could never have imagined.
The book is designed as the first half of a duology, but if you don’t read the epilogue the book ends on a very solid stand alone note. The epilogue provides a surprise that sets up where the second book will go. Again, probably not a huge surprise by the time you get there, I had it figured out already, but it’s still a good ending. I was glad to see that the series is planned as a duology, because if it were a trilogy I would probably wait until the third book comes out before reading the second. This way I won’t have to wait… I mean, I won’t have to wait any longer than it takes the author to release book 2 😅
I highly, highly recommend this book. Cannot recommend it enough. If you like sci-fi, or harem stories, or Chinese mythology, or Xianxia, or anime, or YA novels, or books in general… you will probably enjoy this book too. The publication date is set for September of 2021 which gives you plenty of time to put in your pre-order or bug your library to get a copy. Or if you’re very lucky like I was, you might be allowed a chance at an advanced reader copy.
As a final note, I’ll leave you with this oddly relevant question…
Actual final note… go follow Empress Zetian on Twitter if you’re over there. She’s very amusing.