Best Fiction for Young Adults (#BFYA2023) Featured Review of Iron Widow by Xiran Jay Zhao

Iron Widow by Xiran Jay Zhao
Penguin Teen
Publication Date: September 21, 2022
ISBN: 9780735269934

Loosely based on the rise of Wu Zetian, the only female Chinese emperor, Iron Widow follows 18-year-old Zetian as she infiltrates the military to avenge her sister’s murder and then dismantle the patriarchal system that made the murder possible.

In Huaxia, a futuristic Chinese-inspired world, humans battle the alien Hundun in an endless war. To hold their own against the insectile Hundun, soldiers pilot giant mecha Chrysalises that take the shape of mythical animals and use qi as fuel, needing both the male yang and female yin energy. While male pilots are celebrated as idols, their female partners are subservient concubine-pilots, and usually die during battle.

Zetian leaves behind a potential future with her lover, Yizhi, to become a concubine-pilot to get close to the man who killed her sister. She shocks everyone when she survives her first battle, using her qi to take over the Chrysalis, killing her male pilot instead. Seen as a dangerous necessity, Zetian is paired with Li Shimin, a convicted murderer and number one Chrysalis pilot. But Li Shimin turns out to be the partner she needs to survive the Hundun and wrestle power from those who would keep feeding innocent girls to the war effort.

This is a gripping, feminist science fiction story that mixes the impossible cool of giant robots fighting aliens with intricate political intrigue. The worldbuilding is complex, and the action-packed plot leaves little breathing room but makes time for a queer-affirming polyamourous romance (instead of a love triangle). Zetian’s unapologetic rage at her limited choices–a wife, a servant, or a sacrificial pilot–is palpable, and her strategic plan to upend an unjust system and put herself in power is fascinating to behold.

Hand to fans of dark, violent speculative fiction and those who like intense philosophical debates on where the line between human and monster is drawn, like These Violent Delights by Chloe Gong, Not Even Bones by Rebecca Schaeffer, Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Miur, and The Poppy War by RF Kuang.

Krista Hutley

The Selected Lists teams read throughout the year in search of the best titles published in their respective categories. Once a book is suggested (either internally or through the title suggestion form), it must pass through a review process to be designated an official nomination. 

Each week, the teams feature a review of one of the officially nominated titles. Additional titles to receive this designation are listed as well. At year’s end, the team will curate a final list from all nominated titles and select a Top Ten.