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Literature / Iron Widow

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You've been living a dream for long enough. Welcome to your nightmare!
Iron Widow is the debut novel of Xiran Jay Zhao, and was 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.

The sequel, Heavenly Tyrant, will be released in Spring 2024.

On September 22, 2022, it was announced that Iron Widow would receive a film adaptation. Xiran themself was consulted and approves of the project.

Iron Widow contains examples of:

  • Abusive Parents: Zetian's parents treat her like a possession and a possible cash cow (as concubines' families are given large payouts when they die piloting). This is why she doesn't feel bad that they'll be executed if she manages to murder Yang Guang. Zetian's father in particular, always screams at her, constantly accuses her of "fooling with boys" with an ever present death threat to kill Zetian if she "shamed" them. He even makes a point of being as loud and volatile as possible to always keep his wife and daughters on edge for fear of his temper. He even beat up Zetian for being sad after they are initially told of his elder daughter's death.
  • After-Action Healing Drama: Zetian is shot by a soldier when she attempts to resist her and Shimin being tributed. While the Vermillion Bird barely manages to win the battle, Zetian's bullet wound makes the process a lot more draining and continues to be a problem for her for the rest of the book.
  • Agony of the Feet: 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, and she's always in pain from them: when she and Shimin start sharing memories due to their bond and he experiences it for himself, he compares it to walking on knives. How she got them is an example of this in itself: when she was five, her grandmother made her run across a frozen lake barefoot, then took a hammer to her feet.
  • Aliens Speaking English: The Emperor-class Hunduns defending the replication chamber in Zhou province rail at the Vermillion Bird in perfectly fluent human language, which is not only unheard of but also noted as particularly strange because even the human nomads who survived the fall of Zhou speak a dialect that's diverged so far it's no longer mutually intelligible with the rest of Huaxia.
  • All There in the Manual: The author's website has profiles of the mechs.
  • Animal Mecha: The mecha are modeled after East Asian mythical creatures, such as the White Tiger, the Vermilion Bird, the Nine-Tailed Fox, etc. Their default form is that of the animal, and they have to be transformed into the "Ascended" humanoid shape.
  • Animesque: As unabashedly detailed in the "Bonus Summary for Weebs", the author took a LOT of influence from various anime in writing Iron Widow.
  • Apocalypse How: A Class 2, Planetary and Societal Collapse — the hundun attacks destroyed society as people knew it thousands of years ago, and it was only rebuilt when the gods granted humanity the knowledge of how to turn the corpses of Prince-class hunduns into Chrysalises. Or at least, that's what the people have been told.
  • Asshole Victim:
    • Yang Guang, who was responsible not only for the death of Zetian's Big Sister, but has killed countless of his concubines outside of battle, while fooling many others into believing they were special to him while all he really wanted from them was sex. There isn't much sympathy to be had when Zetian comes into her power and kills him inside his own Chrysalis.
    • Senior Strategist An Lushan, who spends almost the entire book hounding Zetian and Shimin out of a petty grudge because Shimin beat up two of his star pilots. Even worse, he's later revealed to have forced Shimin into becoming an alcoholic in order to have absolute control over him and he's one of the few people who know that the pilot system is rigged against girls. He's also a misogynist and an overly petty greedy jerk. His torture and eventual death through Zetian and Shimin is possibly one of the most satisfying moments in the book.
  • Awesome Moment of Crowning: Shimin and Zetian's "Match Crowning" is done as a publicity stunt, and oh man, do they deliver.
  • Bad Bedroom, Bad Life: Wu Zetian's parents disregard her so much that she has to sleep in her grandparents' bedroom as they don't intend on keeping her long for her to need her own furniture. Wu Zetian had never had a space for herself and has to put up with her abusive grandparents.
  • Beige Prose: Yang Guang in the prologue has bland, exposition heavy prose to show how emotionally detached he is to the suffering around him, barely noting the emotions coming from the hunduns he's killing and the female pilot's death. It's a sharp contrast to Wu Zetian, whose prose is both emotional and poetic.
  • Beware the Nice Ones: Yizhi is a pleasant and charming young man, but it's clear that he has a dark side deep down: he coldly stands up to Li Shimin when trying to convince him to sober up (even yanking on his leash to drag him down to eye level), and when he watches the tape of Zetian and Li Shimin interrogating, torturing, and murdering An Lushan, Zetian notes that Yizhi doesn't even blink.
  • Beware the Quiet Ones: By all accounts, Li Shimin was a gentle scholar and artist, on the track of a pristine academic career. Then he caught his brother raping a young girl. He proceeded to murder his brothers and father, permanently cementing himself as a family killer to the world.
  • Big Beautiful Woman: Zetian is noted several times to be fuller-figured than the beauty standards of Huaxia normally allow for, but she's still quite pretty (if indifferent).
  • Bitch in Sheep's Clothing:
    • Yang Guang, the pilot who killed Zetian's big sister at first acts so gentlemanly and kind towards her that Zetian begins to have doubts over whether her hatred of him is justified and whether or not it's possible that her big sister really did die in a terrible accident like the brass claims. But when she's forced to pilot with him, she sees into his mind — and it turns out not only did Guang kill her sister, she wasn't even the first of his concubines he killed outside of battle.
    • Ma Xiuying, the female pilot of the Black Tortoise, is nothing but kind and supportive towards Zetian during their first meeting, encouraging her to see other points of view and later on urging her to make up with her abusive family. But during the battle to take back the Zhou-province, her and her co-pilot attack the Vermillion Bird under the military's orders, which leads to Shimin dying and the Bird being destroyed. When Zetian has the Black Tortoise at her mercy, Xiuying tries to avoid her revenge by revealing that her children are being held hostage by the military, only to shatter any sympathy this has given her from Zetian by threatening her right after.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Zetain becomes Empress after destroying the capital to the ground and killing those who had ruined her. When she returns to the battle site to recover Shimin's body, she is informed by Qieluo that the Gods have taken him. Shortly after, Yizhi contacts her completely devastated and tells her the Awful Truth: humanity aren't the invaded, they're the invaders. The hunduns have only been fighting back this whole time. The book ends as the Gods contact Zetian directly, revealing that they have what remains of Shimin on a life support and then threatening to kill him if Zetian doesn't obey them from now on. However, considering how far Zetian is willing to go to liberate women from tyranny, you have to wonder if the Gods' gambit will work for very long and she still has the power over humanity.
  • The Bluebeard: All male pilots without a Balanced Match are these by default as their concubines are regularly sacrificed to power their mecha. But Yang Guang takes it much further as many of his concubines are beaten and killed at his hands, with some of them never seeing combat.
  • Blunt "Yes": Zetian gives her father a rather harsh but well-earned one when he tries to guilt-trip her over her actions, just before she indulges in some Calling the Old Man Out.
    Father: I bet you would love it if we rotted here in this frontier slum! If we were first to be crushed when the Hunduns break through the Wall!
    Zetian: Yes, and what of it?
  • Bullying the Dragon: Gao Qiu genuinely thinks he can get a seat at Wu's new reign as Empress by blackmailing Wu with the footage of him forcing her to undress for him. Yizhi is quick to disabuse him of the notion.
  • Calling the Old Man Out: When Zetian returns to her village for the first time after signing up as a pilot, her father tries to lecture and yell at her over her actions, but given that she's now stronger than he is due to her qi training, she turns it around on him and furiously berates her whole family for only ever treating her and her sister as possessions and cash cows, reducing her mother to tears.
    Zetian: Don't pretend like any of you ever saw me as anything but a tool! You were all fine with selling me as a concubine to Yang Guang, who really did murder Big Sister, by the way. I shared a mental link with him — I confirmed it! None of this would've happened if you had just cherished us, so the consequences are yours to deal with!
  • Can't Kill You, Still Need You: The main reason why Shimin and Zetian don't just get downright executed for their crimes. Due to the limited number of strong pilots in Huaxia and the hope of an eventual counterattack to get the Zhou-province back from the hunduns, the people in power simply can't afford to axe off two individuals with spirit pressures as high as Zetian's and Shimin's.
  • Chekhov's Gun: The yin-yang pilot seats come in handy when the Golden Dragon is recovered. Namely, the fact that the yin seat is designed to drain more power than the yang one. Zetian knows that she will be consumed if she tries to pilot with Qin Zheng, so she forces him into the yin seat with her in the yang seat, giving herself the advantage she needs to take control.
  • Dark and Troubled Past:
    • Oh boy, does Li Shimin have one. Due to being half-Rongdi, he was discriminated against by people despite being a gentle and artistic boy. After discovering his brother raping a girl (who happened to be one of the only people who was nice to him), he chose to murder his brothers, and included his father in the body count when he tried to stop him. After being put on death row, he was recruited into the military instead due to his powerful qi, given a forced addiction to alcohol to make him more controllable, caused the deaths of many female pilots due to his qi overpowering them, and the only one of his fellow pilots who genuinely connected to him died.
    • Zetian also counts: being a girl from a frontier village, her entire family is cruel towards her, with her father being physically and verbally abusive, her mother being complicit and excusing her husband's behavior, and her grandmother having been the one to enforce Zetian's foot-binding. When she kills them near the end of the book in her assault on Chang'an, she notes that she feels no regret about it whatsoever.
    • Even Yizhi has one, though because he's not mind-connected like Shimi and Zetian, we don't see it directly, and he doesn't like to talk about it. His mother was a maidservant who was killed by Gao Qiu for not smiling enough at a dinner party. He was raised in wealth and privilege, but with a price: his father had him forcibly tattooed to show that he is "part of the family", and given that his dad is basically this universe's Harvey Weinstein, there's definitely more to his backstory than he wants to let on.
  • Dark Secret: Huaxia society fully believes that the sacrifice of concubines to the mechas is just the way the world works. The true structure is devastatingly simple: the military ensures that girls with low qi power are always paired with boys of high qi power. The girls quickly get consumed during the battle, which the military can easily claim is just because she's a woman rather than any manipulation on their part. The status quo and hierarchy of the system continues unchallenged, with thousands of girls dead to maintain it. The last third of the book reveals how much worse it is: Not only does the military pair low qi girls with high qi boys, the mechas are also deliberately designed so that the female pilot seat draws more qi from the user than the male pilot seat, which draws less power and has stronger control inputs. The logic being that men would be less likely to volunteer if they thought there would be an equal opportunity for them to die compared to their female pilots, and it was decided it was more important for the men to return alive anyway. For a woman to survive this situation, she actually has to have stronger qi than her male pilot counterpart, which is why the match-pairing is so rare. The women are set up to die, the survivors are flukes.
  • Death by Irony: An Lushan forced alcoholism onto Li Shimin to make him more controllable by the military. He's killed by Li Shimin, who waterboards and drowns him with liquor.
  • Descent into Addiction: By the time Wu meets Li Shimin, the pressures of the military and deaths around him have driven him into a deep alcoholism. An addiction intentionally inflicted by the military to ensure Li would be easier to control.
  • 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.
  • Disproportionate Retribution: In Huaxia, some crimes can be punished with three generations of the perpetrator's family being killed. Zetian almost hesitates to kill Yang Guang because of this, but in her case, the choice is eased by the fact that every single member of her family is abusive.
  • Draco in Leather Pants: In-universe, this is how Zetian and Shimin market themselves to gain popularity: as two attractive criminals who are on a path to redemption.
  • 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.
  • Domestic Abuser:
    • Yang Guang regularly beat and killed his concubines, which is the impetus of the plot. Zetian's Big Sister is killed by his hands before she could ever see combat. The only time where Zetian's Big Sister was able to speak to her family through a video call, she had a prominent black eye.
    • Zetian's father actively works to keep his wife and daughters in a state of terror and her grandfather beats her grandmother.
  • Earth All Along: Inverted. The book's final moments reveal that the story has never been set on Earth. The gods that "rebuilt" humanity gave them a new planet: the Hundun's planet.
  • Elemental Powers: The mecha each have specialties based on the five Chinese elements: fire, earth, metal, water, and wood. Wood types are the most conductive of qi and have the highest transformation potential, fire types can channel qi into powerful blasts, etc. Different pilots have different specialties too, with Zetian specializing in metal (control and precision), and Shimin in fire (power and destruction).
  • Energy Donation: Chrysalis pilots can transfer some of their qi to another Chrysalis by touch. In a crucial moment, Yizhi stabilizes the Vermillion Bird's transformation from outside by giving it some qi.
  • Eternal English: Zig-zagged. Zetian and Shimin come across nomads, descendants of the Zhou province people left behind. They can only communicate through writing and body language as they can't understand each other's speech after 200 years of language drift. However, Zetian can understand Qin Zheng, albeit with some strange pronunciation, since his language has been static for those 200 years.
  • Face of a Thug: The famed murderer Li Shimin looks every bit the wild beast he's rumored to be. This is slowly revealed to be enforced. He isn't often given the privilege of showers or cleaning himself. His constant glaring is a result of a need for glasses and he's ultimately a good person despite his occasional bouts of violence.
  • 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. In the process, she crashes through everyone's attempts to manipulate or restrain her because the threat her gender poses them, furiously calls out representatives of Huaxia's misogynistic power structures (and gets to kill some of them), and ultimately becomes Empress of Huaxia by sheer force, having become impossible to oppose by virtue of piloting the unstoppable Yellow Dragon and having taking Qin Zheng himself as her subordinate concubine-pilot.
  • Fiction 500: Yizhi's father, Gao Qiu, is an entertainment mogul worth over a billion yuan (the in-universe currency). In fact, Word of God describes Yizhi's in-universe "superpower" as simply being rich. Lampshaded when Sima Yi and Yizhi try to rescue Zetian and Shimin from being tributed and break through a group of soldiers. invoked
    Sima Yi: You can't shoot me, I'm from Central Command!
    Yizhi: You can't shoot me, I'm rich!
  • First-Person Smartass: Zetian's narration is deeply snarky. It even bleeds into the chapter titles sometimes, giving us examples like "A Butterfly that Better Not Be My Dead Sister", "The Supposed Pinnacle of Female Existence" and "Bad Examples for the Children".
  • Forced Addiction: The convicted murderer Li Shimin is forced to serve as a mech pilot due to his vast spiritual energy, but spends the rest of his time drinking heavily in his cell. Zetian and Yizhi eventually learn that he was force fed alcohol to the point of addiction in order to control him, so they get him into treatment, kidnap the government agent responsible, and drown him in liquor.
  • Foreshadowing:
    • Zetian observes that the Hundun are very careful in not damaging the terrain while the Chrysalises cause a lot of extensive damage without little care. This eventually makes sense because, as revealed at the end of the book, the characters are in the Hundun's homeworld and they're the invaders. The Hundun are fighting because they're defending their planet.
    • The words "Humans...scourge of the universe..." muttered by the Emperor-class Hundun becomes more sense when Zetain learns The Awful Truth at the end of the book.
  • The Four Gods: Four of the five gods (under the Chinese schematic) are featured in the novel, and their pilots are appropriately named after Emperors and their Empresses:
    • The White Tiger piloted by Yang Jian and Dugu Qieluo,
    • The Black Turtle piloted by Zhu Yuanzhang and Ma Xiuying,
    • The Vermilion Bird piloted by Li Shimin and Wu Zetian.
    • and finally The Yellow Dragon, piloted in the past by the legendary Emperor-General Qin Zheng.
  • Gentle Giant: Played with when it comes to the 6'5'' and well-muscled Li Shimin: while he is indeed dangerous and aggressive towards his enemies, he's also shown to be good-hearted, well-read, and artistically-gifted. In addition, he's never anything but respectful and well-meaning towards Zetian or Yizhi.
  • The Gentleman or the Scoundrel: Wu's primary love triangle involves her attraction for the loyal, sweet Yizhi versus the dangerous, powerful, and deadly Li Shimin. This is gradually subverted as Yizhi and Shimin prove to be not that different and the three of them ultimately realize they all love each other.
  • God Guise: By the end of the book, it’s abundantly obvious that the Gods are simply technologically-advanced humans living in orbit of the planet, using Huaxia and possibly other human strongholds as a way to mine spirit metal and entertain themselves.
  • The Gods Must Be Lazy: While the gods are mentioned several times as receiving sacrifices occasionally in exchange for forgotten knowledge, they're also explicitly mentioned as not getting involved in human affairs. Until the end, when they decide Zetian has meddled enough and knows too many dangerous secrets, and thus needs to be blackmailed into falling in line. Even the emperor stirs from his stupor in fury when they do - the gods certainly never felt the need to contact him or offer him any sort of aid.
  • Good Hair, Evil Hair: Shimin's crew cut reads as solidly evil In-Universe. Long, well-maintained hair is an important sign of filial piety, whereas Shimin's was cut short after his Patricide.
  • The Great Wall: It's a story based on ancient China, of course it features a Great Wall. However, the term is mostly propaganda — the wall consists mainly of railway lines, and while sections of huge, solid fortifications certainly exist, they're only a small fraction of the Wall, and used to block off valleys and the like that would otherwise serve as entry points for Hundun attacks.
  • Green-Eyed Monster: When Dugu Qieluo sees an image of Zetian while bonded to Yang Jian during a battle, she becomes extremely hostile to Zetian when they meet in person.
  • Honor-Related Abuse: An ever present threat: if girls are disgraced through pre-marital sex or raped, their families will kill them by drowning them in pig pens. Which gives Zetian a massive negative association with sex; she knows her family would literally kill her.
  • Huge Guy, Tiny Girl: Word of God puts Zetian's and Shimin's heights at 5'2" and 6'5" respectively, made more dramatic by Shimin being quite muscular compared to Zetian. invoked
  • Human Sacrifice:
    • When the Hunduns are agitated and begin attacking more frequently than normal, pilots that get too old to pilot (over 25) or too troublesome are tributed, sent into battle in suboptimal condition, so that the Hunduns will kill them and subsequently dial things down a notch at the removal of their threat. The only way out of it is to be really famous with the public and/or get allowed to retire. Zetian and Shimin are nearly tributed when the military deems them too troublesome to deal with and the plan to retake the Zhou province too risky.
    • It's mentioned that, in addition to spirit metal, the Gods also take girls as offerings. Nobody knows why or what happens to them.
  • Humongous Mecha: The Chrysalises which are piloted by male-female pairs and are based on East Asian mythical creatures. The Vermillion Bird's Heroic Form is around 100 meters tall, and is dwarfed by the Yellow Dragon.
  • Hypocrite: Zetian gets in plenty of snark at the misogynistic ideals of her country constantly changing their minds to whatever makes women sound the worst. Case in point, if a man behaves badly, it's his wife's fault for not handling him properly, and if a woman behaves badly, it's also her fault and proof that men need to police women for their own good.
    Zetian: I swear, people cannot make up their minds about who is supposed to be the clueless infants in need of constant supervision: men or women.
  • I Have Your Wife:
    • Yizhi doctors a photo so Wu Zetian can make An Lushan think that they have taken his son hostage to force him to talk.
    • The military uses Ma Xiuying's children in order to force her and her husband into attacking and destroying the Vermilion Bird.
    • The Sages attempt to pull this to save themselves from Zetian's Roaring Rampage of Revenge by keeping her family hostage. Unfortunately for them, Zetian's parents are Abusive Parents while her brother is just as bad as her father, so it doesn't work.
    • In the epilogue the Gods kidnap Shimin's mangled body out of the remains of the Vermillion Bird and blackmail Zetian to comply with them or lose Shimin for good.
  • I'm a Man; I Can't Help It: Defied. Huaxian beliefs hold that men are incapable of holding back sexually and that women must always strive to please them, so Zetian fully expects Shimin to rape her on their first night together because he "has needs". Shimin scornfully says that men are perfectly capable of controlling themselves, and rapists choose not to, giving Zetian her first hint that he's quite different from the men she's encountered thus far.
  • Ki Manipulation: The Chrysalises are powered by qi, and what makes a good pilot is having high "qi pressure" (most people have about 80, the best pilots have about 2000). 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.
  • King in the Mountain: Yang Guang talks about the only known Emperor class pilot towards the beginning of the book, and how the Emperor is believed to still be alive behind enemy lines but dormant, awaiting the cure to a disease that was killing him. This is completely true. Zetian uses a vaccine injector and her knowledge of current events to gain the emperor's compliance. The fact that he doesn't seem to be entirely coherent after 200+ years in stasis helps. She's worried that as he becomes more lucid and starts having a better understanding of his situation, she'll lose her leverage over him. However, said Emperor class pilot, Qin Zheng is rather displeased at pilots no longer being rulers and goes along with Zetian's plan to take over using the Yellow Dragon to annihilate the government and military command.
  • Made of Magic: Spirit metal is qi in solid form. When controlled by someone's own qi, it's weightless and able to be reshaped at will; otherwise it's extremely heavy.
  • Magic by Any Other Name: Qi manipulation is explicitly not magic, but a quantifiable natural phenomenon with its own laws. Its effects still look pretty supernatural to the reader.
    [This] is not magic. It's just his qi pumping into his armor via hair-thin needles in his spine, stimulating the spirit metal.
  • Mars and Venus Gender Contrast: Exploited by Huaxian society, which uses the principles of yin and yang to claim that men and women are fundamentally, spiritually opposite and to justify their rigidly patriarchal society. Defied by Yizhi in the very first chapter, who notes that biology itself is not that strictly defined and even yin and yang will always have at least a bit of the other force in them.
  • Mass "Oh, Crap!": When the other pilots see the Yellow Dragon, they are elated. Only for it to quickly change to fear when they realize that Zetian is also piloting with the legendary Emperor-class pilot... after the Black Tortoise acted on orders to have her and Li Shimin killed.
  • Master of All: The legendary Qin Zheng not only had immeasurable spirit pressure, but could control all five forms of qi interchangeably.
  • A Mech by Any Other Name: Here they're called Chrysalises
  • Mecha-Enabling Phlebotinum: The spirit metal of the Chrysalises is a crystallized form of qi, enabling pilots with powerful qi of their own to project their minds into it and reshape it into more powerful forms.
  • Men Are the Expendable Gender: Inverted. Girls are regularly sacrificed to power the mecha. While the male pilots also generally don't live past their mid-twenties (if they're lucky), and are drawn from among the poor and disadvantaged just like the girls, they're treated like royalty and are considered much greater losses.
  • Missing Mom: Yizhi's mother was a servant that Gao Qiu made into a concubine. She is long dead thanks to Gao Qiu having her executed for not smiling on command.
  • Mordor: The border area between Huaxia and the hundun territory has been sucked dry of qi and reduced to a barren wasteland by centuries of fighting. Subverted when they journey deeper and find nature thriving, as the hunduns take care of their own planet.
  • More Deadly Than the Male:
    • Despite being physically less intimidating and dangerous than Shimin or even Yizhi due to her petite height and disability, Zetian's intelligence, instincts, and bone-deep ruthlessness make her even more of a threat than them.
    • It's later revealed that this is the case with all Balanced Matches, as the yin seat is designed to take more out of its pilot than the yang seat, so all "matches" are actually the women being stronger than the men.
  • Names to Run Away from Really Fast: Li Shimin is called the Iron Demon, while Zetian is the Iron Widow.
  • Nice Job Fixing It, Villain: The attempt to sacrifice/feed Wu Zetian to Li Shimin (who's notorious for a 100% fatality rate with his concubines) does not go as planned.
  • No Historical Figures Were Harmed: Zetian is explicitly stated to be based on Wu Zetian. Name-wise, Li Shimin is a homage to Taizong of Tang and Yang Guang is one to Emperor Yang of Sui. Gao Yizhi, on the other hand, is said to be inspired by several of Wu Zetian's lovers rather than a single person.
  • No Woman's Land: Huaxia society largely restricts women to the rolls of expendable pilot-concubine or wife. (The Rongdi, an ethnic minority, are more egalitarian, but they are oppressed by the majority Han.)
  • Not Disabled In VR: Zetian, who is physically crippled due to her bound feet, revels that she can actually properly walk in the Mental World of the mechas and in the Yin-Yang Realm with Li Shimin.
  • Ominous Fog: Hunduns always attack in the fog or in conditions with bad visibility, since it doesn't affect their own senses.
  • Organ Theft: Like other condemned prisoners in Huaxia, Shimin had one kidney and part of his liver taken for transplants. Zetian is aghast at how the damage could affect his primordial qi in the long term.
  • Paralyzing Fear of Sexuality: Despite her deep affection for Yizhi, her need to lower Yang Guang's guard and later outside pressure to bond with Li Shimin, Zetian refuses or freezes when it comes on acting on sexual desire. Years of being threatened with death had she ever had premarital sex emotionally scarred her. Only when she's able to trust Yizhi and Li Shimin does she act on her desires.
  • Parental Favoritism: Zetian's parents adore her brother the most to the point of selling her older sister and herself to secure his future. Zetian has memories of her parents lovingly telling her brother stories while Zetian doesn't have a space to herself. She has her feelings confirmed when the government attempts to hold her family hostage to stop her from razing them to the ground. Her parents try to bargain for her brother's life, hitting her that they had the capacity to love and protect. They just chose not to love her nor her sister.
  • Perpetual Frowner: Li Shimin is an infamous murderer with a constant glare that unsettles even Zetian at first. Subverted when it comes out that he's actually squinting to see better; he stops when he gets his glasses back.
  • Politically Incorrect Villain: Gao Qiu has a deep misogynistic streak, despising that Zetian is the more dominant one with Li Shimin. He accuses Zetian of purposely leading his son on and makes a point to humiliate her when she asks for his support in the media by forcing her to be filmed naked. He also had Yizhi's mother killed for not smiling on command.
  • Polyamory: The solution to the love triangle Zetian finds herself in. With some encouragement from Yizhi, she enters relationships with both him and Shimin; Shimin and Yizhi later admit their feelings for each other as well.
  • Power Levels: While everyone has the same amount of qi, qi pressure (how well the person can channel it) can be measured and is used to choose pilots for mecha. However, the test is shown to be flawed as it registers Zetian as having moderate spirit pressure, but when she's put in a mech and fighting for her life her pressure becomes much higher.
  • Publicity Stunt Relationship: Zetian and Li Shimin know that their status as press-ganged mecha pilots is precarious, so to make themselves too famous to dispose of, they sign a media contract that promotes them as a Battle Couple of darkly alluring anti-heroesinvoked. They do end up in a real relationship, but keep that part private.
  • Protagonist Title: Iron Widow is the epithet that Zetian is given.
  • Readings Are Off the Scale: Li Shimin's qi of more than 10000 certainly counts, and while we never get an exact number for Wu Zetian she's shown to be stronger than him. Before him, Qin Zheng, the strongest pilot in history, had a qi reading that straight up couldn’t be measured with the technology of his time. Considering that his mech was designed to drain the female pilot, his Balanced Match would have been even stronger.
  • Rejected Marriage Proposal: When Yizhi first learns that Zetian plans to kill Yang Guang, he tries to offer her his hand in marriage to stop her. She not only rejects him, she gives him a What the Hell, Hero? for trying it and for being a Sheltered Aristocrat, telling him that his father would never accept their union and would only let her be one of his concubines, that she'd never find it in herself to kowtow to his father or his eventual wife, and that even if they eloped and ran away together, she'd never be happy knowing that she'd been stopped from doing what she wanted. When he later returns, he admits it was wrong of him to try to change her mind.
  • Revenge Before Reason: Senior Strategist An Lushan repeatedly tries to get Zetian and Shimin killed, because Shimin beat up two of his pilots, completely ignoring the fact that depriving Huaxia of pilots with spirit pressures as high as theirs would essentially doom the planned counter-attack on the Zhou-province and in the long run probably Huaxia itself.
  • Right Behind Me: Halfway through the book, as Shimin went for a bathroom break, Sima Yi is trying to work out how to get Zetian and Shimin to work together. When Zetian lets it slip that she and Shimin haven't had sex yet. Sima Yi urges her to do so, citing that as the mental block keeping them apart, but Zetian shoots him down, telling him that she's been told all her life that sex is something awful and she refuses to do that with a man she hates. Naturally, this is the exact moment Shimin returned, and he heard everything.
  • Roaring Rampage of Revenge:
    • Zetian attempts to do this during a panic attack when she and Shimin are sent out to be tributed. She is barely stopped by Yizhi calling to her over the command speakers.
    • The book's finale has Zetian and Yizhi doing this for real. With the help of the Yellow Dragon, Zetian razes the empire to the ground destroying the old power structures one by one with the goal of taking over once everything is in ruins.
  • Rule of Symbolism: In the first chapter, Zetian is pondering how strictly Huaxian society maintains gender roles based on the idea that women are naturally yin and men naturally yang, and that all of nature must be one of the two. She then spots a butterfly hatching and sees that it has one yin wing and one yang wing, making it half male and half female.
  • Screw the Rules, I Have Money!: Yizhi is able to pull stunts like getting a strategist position on a whim, "borrowing" a well-appointed suite on the Great Wall, and outright defying armed soldiers by virtue of being very, very rich. His father goes much further by virtue of having even more money, connections, and a criminal enterprise.
  • Self-Made Orphan:
    • Li Shimin, before the book starts (though his mother was dead long before the murder happened). In Li Shimin's case, the murder was because his brother was an unapologetic rapist, and his family attacked him afterwards and he defended himself.
    • Wu Zetian orphans herself on purpose: not only because her family never valued her, but to keep any lingering attachment to her blood relatives from being used against her at an inconvenient time, after two subsequent attempts at exactly that by the military/government she's in the process of destroying. She mashes her family and the military officials attempting to hold them hostage with the claw of her mecha.
    • Yizhi kills his father using the shoulder and arm pieces of Zetian's spirit metal armor to shoot his father dead with lightning when Gao Qiu attempts to humiliate Zetian by exposing his blackmail on her to Yizhi. Yizhi immediately takes control of his father's forces and Gao Enterprises to force them to submit to Zetian.
  • She Cleans Up Nicely: When Wu Zetian finalizes her plan to become a Concubine-Pilot to kill her sister's killer, she has her unibrow waxed to make herself look more attractive to the army recruiter.
  • Shock and Awe: It's mentioned in passing that a fusion of wood and earth qi can create lightning, though none of the Chrysalises use it in battle, favoring other forms of qi attack instead. In the finale, Yizhi uses a piece of pilot armor and his own affinity for those qi types to kill his father.
  • Shoot the Shaggy Dog Story: Li Shimin killed his brother, his brother's friends and his own family to defend a girl that his brother was raping. The girl's family drowned her for getting raped.
  • 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.
    • The Silver River is described as arching "like a stardust dragon across the cosmos." Given that the author started out as a self-proclaimed Yu-Gi-Oh! shitposter and they are fond of using the unofficial version of the book’s cover where Zetian wears a Duel Disk, this reference was most certainly intentional.
    • Sun Wukong is mentioned by Zetian as the famous former pilot of the Monkey King, who gained immense fame and popularity after his biography about his escorting of a monk to a western stronghold became a bestseller.
  • Skewed Priorities: When Zetian's family is told of their eldest daughter's death, are they sad at the loss of one of their daughters? Nope! The father is instead extremely pissed off that his eldest daughter died before ever going to battle so they didn't get the massive bonus for a battlefield death and beats Zetian for dropping the eggs in her shock of the news.
  • Tarnishing Their Own Beauty: Wu Zetian had kept her unibrow to make herself less attractive to people so she could increase her value on the marriage market at the right moment and her own protection.
  • Thicker Than Water: Deconstructed. Huaxia holds filial piety dear and expects all people to be obedient and loyal to their family above all else. In practice, however, this allows parents and men to abuse children and women while demanding absolute loyalty in return. All three of the protagonists have families that abused them using filial piety as an excuse, all three of them decide they're better off with each other, and all three of them wind up killing their families for various reasons.
  • Trading Bars for Stripes: Li Shimin was on death row for murdering his father and brothers, but his qi pressure is so high that he was given a stay of execution and put in a Chrysalis. He's the only one who can pilot a King-class Chrysalis, the biggest and most powerful type, so although people are uncomfortable with a half-Rongdi criminal pilot, they can't do without him.
  • Transforming Mecha: Chrysalises start out in an animal shape, but can transform into larger, more humanoid forms when the pilot feeds enough qi into them.
  • Treacherous Advisor: Sima Yi, who had supported the Vermilion Bird and acted as a mentor to them, had no issue with the Black Tortoise killing them on the military's orders.
  • Uptown Girl: Gao Yizhi comes from an incredibly rich family, while Zetian is a poor frontier peasant.
  • Useless Bystander Parent: Zetian's mother never defends herself nor her daughters from her abusive husband, instead chiding Zetian for angering him. Zetain's mother at least seems to care about her deep down, and understands that being a concubine is terrible because she keeps trying to convince herself Zetian will be a vanishingly rare Iron Princess (in perfect balance with her co-pilot, rather than consumed), but ultimately is an enabler of Zetian's violent and misogynist father.
  • War Is Glorious: Invoked. The Forever War against the Hundun is publicized for mass entertainment, with fans even in the border territories at greatest threat of a breach. Battles are live-streamed as a matter of course, pilots are glamorous celebrities who sign deals with media companies (which are so influential not even the government will cross them in some matters), and model kits are sold of their machines.
  • What You Are in the Dark: Li Shimin discovered his brother sexually assaulting a young girl. Both of them knew that if Li tried to call for help, his brother would use his popularity with the guards to pin the crime on Li. He had the choice to ignore the crime and leave the girl to her fate. He chose to kill his brother instead, even if it meant taking up arms against his father and other brother in self-defense.
  • Would Hurt a Child: When trapped in Yang Guang's mind realm, Wu Zetian strangles the mental version of him, which looked like a young boy, to save herself from being consumed for her qi. Downplayed in that she's fully aware he's not actually a child, and even then she has to fight her own repulsion at the act.
  • Wouldn't Hurt a Child: Gao Qiu, being more aware of Zetian's personality, takes a bunch of little girls hostages when he attempts to blackmail her into making him her regent when she takes over as Empress. Zetian refuses to kill the vulnerable young girls after making it her mission to tear down their patriarchal society.
  • You Have Outlived Your Usefulness:
    • The military, not wanting to deal with the controversies surrounding them, attempt to have Zetian and Shimin tributed despite their success and Shimin suffering alcohol withdrawal. They survive in spite of it, but it emphasizes the necessity of having outside support.
    • In the climax, immediately after the Vermillion Bird takes down the Metal Emperor hundan, the Black Tortoise acts on the military orders to kill them. The strategists never intended for them to leave Zhou alive.
  • You Wouldn't Shoot Me: After Zetian and Shimin's first piloting together, Zetian, emboldened by her success, asks for the same privileges as male pilots. When Sima Yi fires back that she should be grateful she's still alive, she intimidates everyone present by pulling this in a reverse-psychology way, approaching a guard and daring him to shoot her, even pulling the gun towards her own head when the guard tries to pull it away.