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Iron Widow by Xiran Jay Zhao

--Staff Picks

Iron Widow

Xiran Jay Zhao
Published: 2021
Genre: Science Fiction

The Handmaid’s Tale meets Chinese folklore meets mecha in this fantasy reimagining of the rise of the historical Chinese Empress Wu Zetian.

Humanity is under attack by alien creatures, and the greatest weapon in that fight is, obviously, giant robots powered by human life force. These robots are designed to be piloted by two people—specifically, one man and one woman. And purportedly due to women being naturally spiritually weaker, the female pilot almost sacrifices her life in battle, her chi completely depleted.

Zetian enlists for this suicide mission not out of patriotism or duty to humanity, but in the hope of avenging her sister, who was murdered off the battlefield by a famous male pilot. Against everyone’s expectations, she survives her first battle…and ends up discovering that the system is even more corrupt than she ever imagined. Zetian, obviously, tries to solve this problem with more giant robots.

I’ll admit to having initially avoided this title due to having been burned by similar premises so often in the past. I need not have worried. Xiran Jay Zhao is nonbinary themselves and pushes back against the gender essentialism present in so many fantasy settings rather than reinforcing it.

While Iron Widow is being marketed as YA, I’d recommend it to anyone looking for an action-packed deconstruction of fantasy tropes.