Iron Widow by Xiran Jay Zhao
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
This is a first novel from an author I think has promise, but it suffers from typical first-novel problems, mainly clunky worldbuilding and sometimes inconsistent characterization. It's a young adult novel featuring a reimagining of Chinese history:
This book is not historical fantasy or alternate history, but a futuristic story set in an entirely different world inspired by cultural elements from across Chinese history and featuring historical figures reimagined in vastly different life circumstances.
Specifically, the protagonist, Wu Zetian, was inspired by Empress Wu, the only female emperor in Chinese history.
The worldbuilding is okay: this book takes place on another planet where humans are fighting off alien invaders called Hunduns, using giant Chrysalis robots (mecha) shaped after various animals: the Vermilion Bird the Black Tortoise among others, and at the end, the Yellow Dragon. These mecha are piloted by people with high qi, or life force, who psychically link with the Chrysalises. This requires two pilots, a male and a female, following the Chinese tradition of yin and yang--but unfortunately, the male of the pair often drains the female, his concubine-pilot, to death.
Zetian's sister was one of the victims of a Chrysalis pilot, and she vows to join the army herself and avenge her sister. To her surprise, she discovers she is strong enough to take over a Chrysalis and deal the same death to the male pilot as was dealt to her sister--in the process becoming the titular Iron Widow.
The marriage of this sci-fi setting with elements of Chinese history and mythology is often an uneasy one (and much of the dialogue, especially, sounds way too current to suit the setting). Zetian is a fierce heroine, determined to overthrow this terrible system and save the girls condemned to die within it. At the same time she has to cooperate with it to an extent, as the Hunduns keep raiding. She quickly becomes embroiled in court intrigue, as in an attempt to control her she is matched with one of the strongest pilots in centuries, one Li Shimin, a broken, alcoholic young man with a tortured past.
One good thing about the plot is the re-imagining of the dreaded YA "love triangle." This is a cliche of the genre, as in many of these books the young heroine meets up with two boys who vie for her attention, and she has to choose between them. If the writer has even decent skill at characterization, the question is often asked (or at least I ask it when I read one of these): "Why can't she have both?" Well, in this book the author actually does it, as Zetian, Shimin and another character, Yizhi, the "son of literally the richest man in Huaxia," enter into a polyamorous triad. (Of course, none of them are sixteen-year-olds--Zetian is eighteen and the boys are both a year older. I don't know how that would fly with younger protagonists.) This was rather a pleasant surprise, and I wish more YA authors who write love triangles would do something like this.
This book ends on a cliffhanger (another cliche, unfortunately) amidst a reveal that turns the entire world of Huaxia upside down. I do think this author has a lot of room for improvement, and I hope the next book shows progress.
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