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The Busy Reader


Pages in Motion. Passion for Stories.

Iron Widow

Who Should Read It:

Although marketed toward teens, all fans of dystopian science fiction from all ages will enjoy

Why Should We Read It:

It is an fast-paced, action-packed novel with multiple unpredictable plot twists

What Will We Learn:

A fun way to get introduced to ancient Chinese history and culture…with considerable creative liberties!

Book Reflections

"...imagines an alternative universe in which alien robots called hunduns have invaded Medieval China... "

I am an impulsive book buyer. My wife and I can meander into a bookstore with no intentions, and walk out with 3 or 4 books that we might not ever deeply read. Such was the case with Iron Widow by Xiran Jay Zhao. This book was located in the teen sci-fi section, and I had never heard of the story or the author. I did have good luck with other Chinese sci-fi authors. Despite that, I hesitated for a moment because I was not interested in reading about teenage angst set in a futuristic space melodrama. What convinced me was the author’s bio and photo on the cover jacket. Our world celebrates equity and inclusion, and a Chinese-born woman who elects to pose in a cow costume while describing herself with “they” pronouns deserves a chance to be heard.

"... our protagonist [is] a peasant girl with a personal death wish on a male pilot."

Iron Widow is a groundbreaking, fresh, and innovative story. It imagines an alternative universe in which alien robots called hunduns have invaded Medieval China. Over the centuries, humans learned to pilot captured hunduns to fight back. The only catch- it requires a man and a woman (yin and yang) with sufficient qi energy to pilot the robots, and inevitably the woman will die. Nobody knows why. This dynamic fuels a militaristic society in which male pilots are glorified in the media (battles with hunduns are broadcast to citizens’ tablets). Female pilots literally serve as concubines until they die in battle. The woman’s disposable status extends into general society. It is in this context where we meet our protagonist Wu Zetian, a peasant girl with a personal death wish on a male pilot.

"…Inspired by real historical figures in Chinese history..."

Wu Zetian, along with the novel’s two other major characters Li Shimin and Gao Yizhi, are actually real historical figures in Chinese history. The historical Wu Zetian was an educated woman from a wealthy merchant family in the Tang Dynasty. She became the primary consort of Emperor Gaozong (personal name Yizhi) through a series of palace intrigue. From there, she consolidated and wielded power through her husband and sons for 25 years before directly ruling China as Empress for 15 years until her death. Her reign witnessed Chinese territorial expansion, cultural and economic revitalization, and decreased court corruption. No other woman- past or present- has ever ruled China with absolute power, and very few individuals-male or female- can legitimately match Wu Zetian's extensive legacy.

"Not a bad debut novel from a writer, whether in a cow costume or not!"

The novel openly acknowledges "…considerable creative liberties were taken during the reimagining of these historical figures…To get an authentic view of history, please consult non-fiction sources." This is self-evident. Wu Zetian of Iron Widow is a fighter more reminiscent of Katniss Everdeen (The Hunger Games) than a courtesan who deals and double crosses. The novel also warns that it "contains scenes of violence and abuse, suicide ideation, discussion and references to sexual assault (though no on-page depictions), alcohol addiction, and torture." Riding underneath all these issues is the pervasive blatant and structural sexism, distressingly familiar in our own real world, that Wu Zetian must overcome. Not a bad debut novel from a writer, whether in a cow costume or not! I look forward to the second installment.


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