Iron Widow is a book born from female rage. I often pitch it as “Pacific Rim” meets The Handmaid’s Tale because those are two properties familiar to Western audiences, but in truth, I was more inspired by Japanese mecha anime and Chinese harem dramas. The gilded palaces of Imperial China, where thousands of women must serve a single man, are a wondrous male fantasy but a suffocating female nightmare, and have produced many intense and thrilling stories throughout history. These stories then evolved into a very culturally-specific genre in Chinese media—gongdou, or “harem contentions.” I have always enjoyed this genre, yet felt guilty about it for the longest time because I thought I was partaking in the glorification of a grossly misogynist system. But then I realized my favorites of this genre don’t glorify it at all: they tell the stories of women who, trapped in this nightmarish system, use every resource available to them to rise higher and survive. They are important depictions of female-specific experiences often erased, glossed over, or outright demonized by male historians. These stories resonated with me so much because they reflected relatable traumas of living in a patriarchal world, yet provided the catharsis of showing the protagonists winning in spite of the tremendous pressures crushing them down.
Empress Regnant Wu, who inspired this book, personally survived two harems. In her second stint, she fought all the way to the top to become the Empress Dowager, mother of the reigning Emperor, the highest position that a woman in China could achieve at the time. The Confucian officials, who believed the balance of society depended on women being subservient to men, thought she would be satisfied with that. But they underestimated her. Using a series of stunning political maneuvers to consolidate her power, she went even further and toppled her own husband and son’s dynasty to crown herself Huangdi, Emperor, the sole legitimate ruler of China. She defied all odds within a system designed to keep her down and then rewrote its rules to take command of it.
Iron Widow reimagines her as a teenage peasant-girl-turned-mecha-pilot who grows up in a vastly different world in vastly different life circumstances, but that same desire to smash the patriarchy seethes at her core. Her walled nation of Huaxia is under siege by massive alien mechanical lifeforms called Hunduns, while humanity’s only hope of fighting back are Chrysalises, giant mechas piloted in boy-girl pairs. Except the relationship between pilots is not equal. There’s always a danger of one pilot mentally overloading the other in the battle link and killing them, and this danger disproportionately falls on the girls. For this reason, male pilots get to be worshipped as celebrities, while female pilots are seen as disposable and serve as lowly concubines. The protagonist Zetian’s sister Ruyi died as one of these concubines, and so Zetian snaps and embarks on a mission to turn the system upside down. She is joined by a cast of other famous personalities from across Chinese history. It may seem outlandish to reimagine historical figures in this way, but I’m actually carrying on a long tradition of Chinese writers rewriting iconic figures from our history with a fantastical edge. Investiture of the Gods, Journey to the West, The Romance of the Three Kingdoms . . . all fantasy novels written centuries ago, featuring historical figures wielding powers out of myths and legends. I’d like to think that these classic writers would be delighted by the idea of a mecha pilot Wu Zetian.
With such a bonkers concept, I never imagined that Iron Widow would ever win any awards, so it’s an incredible honor to be among the winners of the 2022 PNBA awards.
Celebrate Xiran Jay Zhao and the other winners of 2022 Pacific Northwest Book Awards with the virtual event on Zoom Feb 8, 2022 at 6:00 PM Pacific Time. REGISTER NOW. Vancouver, BC’s Massy Books will also host an in-store celebration with Xinran Jay Zhao; follow the author and the bookstore on social media for details. (Also, don’t miss the story behind their amazing author photo!)