This book took me on a wild ride, and this review is basically a description of all the sights, sounds, and feelings that kept me riveted until the last page.
I also talk a lot about other media, so this can be quite a mixed bag.
About the book
The boys of Huaxia dream of pairing up with girls to pilot Chrysalises, giant transforming robots that can battle the mecha aliens that lurk beyond the Great Wall. It doesn’t matter that the girls often die from the mental strain.
When 18-year-old Zetian offers herself up as a concubine-pilot, it’s to assassinate the ace male pilot responsible for her sister’s death. But she gets her vengeance in a way nobody expected—she kills him through the psychic link between pilots and emerges from the cockpit unscathed. She is labeled an Iron Widow, a much-feared and much-silenced kind of female pilot who can sacrifice boys to power up Chrysalises instead.
To tame her unnerving yet invaluable mental strength, she is paired up with Li Shimin, the strongest and most controversial male pilot in Huaxia. But now that Zetian has had a taste of power, she will not cower so easily. She will miss no opportunity to leverage their combined might and infamy to survive attempt after attempt on her life, until she can figure out exactly why the pilot system works in its misogynist way—and stop more girls from being sacrificed.
On-page representation: Author of color (Hui Chinese), worldbuilding inspired by Chinese history and mythology, POC characters, LGBT representation (bisexual main characters), polyamorous relationship (MFM), mental health issues (rehabilitation from alcoholism)
Trigger and content warnings: death (off-page, discussed), sexism, violence and abuse, suicidal ideation, sexual assault (off-page, discussed/recounted, threats), alcohol addiction, torture, footbinding (described)
Disclaimer: I received an Advanced Review Copy (ARC) from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book.
Iron Widow is a mecha anime in written form and follows a reimagined Wu Zetian–first and only woman emperor of China–as she takes down the patriarchy with the help of her two boyfriends. It not only takes its readers on a wild adrenaline high as it cuts down creatures with giant robot suits; it also dares to confront and dismantle the system surrounding the dual pilots’ chairs and sustaining the war.
This book has been pitched as Pacific Rim X The Handmaid’s Tale, and though it’s awesome that it grabbed people’s attention right away, I am super sad that the comps don’t fully cover its premise. It could have been pitched as a feminist Neon Genesis: Evangelion X gongdou (harem contentions) story! I love that storytelling forms I’ve only seen on TV are now being explored in written form, and somehow, it feels incredibly validating to have these interests meld into one firecracker of a text. I totally understand that this book is primarily marketed to a Western audience who may not be familiar with staple East Asian media, and I hope that this book gets them to explore content outside their comfort zone.
Note: In all honesty, I have not finished Neon Genesis: Evangelion. My suggested comp is based on the first few episodes and the subsequent spoilers I gathered from friends. It only took around three episodes for the psychedelic PTSD from the mind-meld? mind link? to hit my gut like a ten-pound bowling ball. Though it wasn’t a pleasant experience AT ALL, it got me ready for many of the difficult and heavy scenes in this book. I should probably stop being a wimp and finish NG:E this time.
Titular character Zetian keeps us glued to the last page with the sheer force of her fierceness and rage. She is unstoppable at every given turn, and she carries with her an anger backed by years of pain and by scores of unnamed women who have died in service to powerful men. She protests against illiteracy, lack of autonomy, footbinding, media attention, and so much more. It feels exhausting to list them all, but it also makes me realize how hard it is to be a woman in a world that punishes you for being one.
I love how the book builds this society that clearly exposes the roots of Zetian’s burdens. She not only goes toe-to-toe with powerful men oozing with toxic masculinity, but she also questions–though with much more empathy–the women who have been complicit in perpetrating abuse. Her whole journey in ferreting out the truth behind misogynistic systems is one that hurts too much to follow, and everything becomes even messier and blurrier the deeper she digs.
Through this character, Zhao channels their very angry, very unapologetic stance against Chinese traditions that have made so many women needlessly suffer. With every action, they, through Zetian, dare ask the readers: who are you to ask me to tone down? Who are you to tell me that my rage is inappropriate? I don’t see myself as someone who would hold up a middle finger to the establishment and tell it to fuck off, but I admire the strength of people who have the guts to do so especially in defense of women.
Besides women’s issues, the book also touches on other difficult topics like racism against non-Han Chinese–collectively called Rongdi here–prison labor, and alcoholism through Shimin’s and Yizhi’s arcs. Much of it is based on real issues, and I love the messy yet nuanced takes presented here. Shimin and Yizhi, in turn, each have their own compelling narratives, and I can’t help but cheer for these two soft boys whom I have adopted in my heart forever.
But aside from the characters and themes, the plot and worldbuilding elements leave much to be desired. Throughout the course of the book, I constantly ask myself: is it a matter of craft, or is it a problem of unfamiliarity with the source material?
Like with all science fiction–whether written or visual–I feel so lost whenever unfamiliar tech is described, so I don’t think it’s a tech thing. However, I do spend a lot of time scrambling around trying to figure out the rules for some staple items like spirit armor. I wish a brief sentence or two is added to fill in the gaps.
I also struggled with imagining what the Chrysalises look like. Initially, I assumed quite they are angular and boxy like those in Gundam and Voltes V, but some features include wings and heads. At some point, I even imagined them to be like transforming manor robots of Batman Ninja. It slows me down a bit, but because Zhao’s writing still manages to convey the epic scale of these fights, I can still keep up with the emotional beats of the story.
In many of the battles, Zhao pays homage to all the anime they love. It’s the best kind of self-indulgence, and though I’m not weeb enough to name each one, I can definitely feel that this is a book that they wrote primarily for themself.
Iron Widow bases its “magic” or abilities on the five-element qi system. I am unfamiliar with it beyond its literal sense especially when the book emphasizes otherwise, so it does require a learning curve to keep track of when and how each type is used. I try to keep mental tabs through collocation (which qi/ability/color is associated with which Chrysalis/pilot), but each new context still leaves me scrambling for my notes. Though I love the challenge of acquainting myself with an entirely different worldview, other readers who may not have the patience to do so might find it frustrating.
Many of these hiccups are also present in the general mecha genre, which I think is a missed opportunity to elevate some aspects and improve on them. I treated them as minor frustrations and focused my attention on cheering for big robot fights like I do with every other anime. At times, it can feel like a “head empty, vibes only” kind of scene, but I still enjoyed everything.
Overall, this book is an exhilarating mecha experience from beginning to end. I hope you like it too!
Update (10 June 2021): While reading the book, I was struck with how much research I need to do in order to fully comprehend the allusions to Chinese history and literature. Some of the names and figures are familiar from other popular media I consumed, but I don’t know enough to comment on them. In addition, I only have a passing familiarity with mecha anime and have never finished a gongdou series. Most of my mental references actually come from sageuks and harem anime–which I do love, by the way. If you want a review that delves into cultural references in this book–literary, historical, and pop culture–check out this in-depth piece by A Naga of the Nusantara.
- Are you excited for this book? Scream with me in the comments!
- What’s your favorite mecha anime? Drop your recommendations below! Please keep in mind that I’m very much a mecha newbie.