I picked up this novel because I was seeing it mentioned quite a bit on Twitter. And…I loved it. Nice job, queer literature Twitter.
In this alternative world China, poor families sell their daughters either as wives or to the military, where they are partnered with the male pilot of a Chrysalis. Essentially a Chrysalis is a giant fighting robot made of spirit metal, which can morph into different forms. It is fueled by the qi of the male pilot and a female companion. Often the female companion dies after her energy is used up during a battle, making war something that kills many, many women. The featureless Hunduns are mankind’s enemy, whose husks are used to build new Chrysalises and offered up to the gods who live in spaceships above the planet and who are never directly seen.
As you can see, there’s a lot of world-building involved, but it works.
Zetian’s older sister was sold to the military but killed before she ever saw battle. Zetian’s plan is to also let herself be sold so that she can kill the pilot who she believes murdered her sister. She leaves Yizhi, a wealthy young man who loves her and offers to marry her, and sets out to enact her revenge. The army discovers that Zetian has an unexpectedly high spirit pressure, which allows her to survive battles, fighting her male pilot for dominance and creating a huge stir in the media.
Zetian’s goal soon turns from simple revenge to taking down the entire patriarchal system that requires the constant sacrifice of girls’ lives. She fights not just the Hunduns but those within the military who want to get rid of her, building alliances and digging up the ugly secrets of history.
She is unapologetic in her actions, which I found thrilling. She has flaws, certainly, but she’s also decisive and doesn’t waste time feeling guilty for things that she does. We don’t see a lot of heroines like that. And there’s a great take on the traditional YA love triangle. The Hunger Games and Sharon Shinn’s Archangel series occasionally came to mind while reading this book, but Iron Widow is very much its own creation. I look forward to reading whatever Xiran Jay Zhao publishes next.