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Literature / Iron Widow

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Iron Widow is the debut novel of Xiran Jay Zhao, and will be released on September 21, 2021.

Set in the land of Huaxia, boys and girls are paired in giant magical mecha to fight the robot aliens from beyond the Great Wall. The male pilots get glory and are treated like celebrities, while female pilots are seen as disposable and often die from the strain.

The main character is Zetian, a young woman who offers herself as a concubine-pilot for the revenge of her sister's death in the patriarchal military system. As a result of killing the boy responsible for the death of her sister, she is called an Iron Widow, a feared female pilot who can power up Chrysalises by sacrificing the male pilot. In an attempt to tame her, she is paired up with the controversial Li Shimin. But Zetian refuses to back down, and will continue her fight.


Iron Widow contains examples of:

  • Agony of the Feet: The author revealed on their site that Huaxia practices footbinding and Zetian herself has bound feet. In her case, it's bad enough that she needs a cane or wheelchair to get around.
  • Animal Mecha: The mecha are modeled after East Asian mythical creatures. Li Shimin's mech is based on the Vermilion Bird, one of the four major Chinese constellations.
  • Animesque: As unabashedly detailed in the “Bonus Summary for Weebs,” the author took a LOT of influence from various anime in writing Iron Widow.
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance: The military system is very patriarchal and misogynistic. Boys are treated with glory and are in charge, while their female partners are considered to be disposable concubines.
  • The Dreaded: The Iron Widow is a myth among pilots about a woman who kills her male partner to power her mecha, rather than the other way around. When Zetian actually pulls it off, it shocks the entire military, and they become desperate to bring her under control.
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  • Fantasy Counterpart Culture: Huaxia, of Imperial China.
  • Feminist Fantasy: The author described it as 400 pages of female rage conducted through giant mechas. Huaxian society oppresses and commodifies women, even killing concubines to use as power sources for mecha. Zetian not only manages to reverse this onto the pilot who killed her sister, she becomes determined to find out why the system works this way to save other women from the same fate.
  • Humongous Mecha: The Chrysalises which are piloted by male-female pairs and are based on East Asian mythical creatures.
  • Ki Manipulation: According to the author, the fact that the Chrysalises use qi attacks makes the mecha fights read like a bunch of furries in a Dragon Ball Z battle.
  • Men Are the Expendable Gender: Inverted. Girls are regularly sacrificed to power the mecha.
  • No Historical Figures Were Harmed: Zetian is explicitly stated to be based on Wu Zetian. Name-wise, Li Shimin is a homage to Tang Taizong. Gao Yizhi, on the other hand, is said to be inspired by several of Wu Zetian's lovers rather than a single person.
  • Polyamory: The solution to the love triangle Zetian finds herself in.
  • Protagonist Title: Iron Widow is the epithet that Zetian is given.
  • Shout-Out: The author pitched it as Pacific Rim meets The Handmaid's Tale. For the Pacific Rim part, it involves giant mecha fights against aliens where the mecha require two linked partners to run, and for the Handmaid's Tale part, women are heavily oppressed in Huaxian society and seen as nothing but objects to be traded and used as men see fit, literally being used up to power the Chrysalises.

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