Iron Widow by Xiran Jay Zhao

Reviewed by Antonella Townsend

Wow! The Iron Widow is a wild Young Adult read.  Xiran Jay Zhao expands on concepts drawn from a range of pop culture and Chinese mythology to deliver an imaginative Sc Fi retelling of the only female emperor in Chinese history – Wu Zetian.  In this, Zhao powerfully forwards the idea that gender inequality that discounts half the population damages not just female lives but is detrimental to human advancement.  Zhao is angry – energy pours from the page as she explodes traditional ideas of gender binaries and gender roles.

It is as well to note that Empress Wu Zetian, like the Zhao’s protagonist, did not shy away from eliminating a few rivals, including members of her own family.  Also poisoning her husband.  At thirteen-years-old Emperor Taizong (626-649) took Wu Zetian as his concubine; from this point, as a strong, charismatic, vengeful and well-educated women, she managed over some years to claw her way to power, and so began the Zhou dynasty.  Zhao had plenty of material to work into her narrative, while exploring gender and sexuality.

In the prologue, readers are situated in Zhao’s fictionalised world.  The Hunduns, giant robots made from spirit metal, have decimated and scattered humanity into small tribes.  Battles are fought in the wild country beyond the Great Wall of China.  Humans take on the Hunduns in enormous robots, called Chrysalises.  These machines are powered by the fused qi, or life force, of a male pilot coupled with his concubine.  In these interactions, the concubine’s mind is lost inside his will, if, after the battle, her spirit and mind is not reunited with her body she dies.  Many concubines are sacrificed to the glory of this misogynistic military system – including Zetian’s sister. Her mission is to seek revenge.  At eighteen years old, she volunteers to be a concubine-pilot, encouraged by her father who is willing to sacrifice her for the money he will earn by selling his daughter.  Since she was small, Zetian’s father and mother have not valued their daughters, only caring for the son and the need to obtain his bride-price.  She is full of rage, which paired with her exceptionally strong will, or qi force, comes in very handy during the battles.

So, parallels to cultural gender attitudes can be easily spotted.  Zhao does not attempt a subtle approach in illustrating her premise. Real time cultural attitudes blare out from the page.  The narrative carries an important message for all to think about.

The concept of the fused male/female pilot system is a most apt metaphor, employed initially to illustrate negative outcomes for women, Zhao investigates how better results could be achieved in a gender equal structure. Her ideas are intriguing.

The prose tends to be sacrificed to pace, occasionally being over-blown, although sometimes hits the spot quite poetically, in the main, readers are carried along by the gripping action with its many twists and turns.  The big surprise left to last.  Enough said.

It is, as stated, a wild read.  Xiran Jay Zhao a first-generation Hui Chinese immigrant, is a recent graduate of Vancouver’s Simon Fraser University, now living in Vancouver, Canada.


Iron Widow

by Xiran Jay Zhao




ISBN: 978 086154 211 6

$14.99; 394pp

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